Forking at Perfection
by IAN CHENG
Baby Island Simulator is a little game for encounters with a baby. To play this game you need a human baby who cannot yet walk, placed on a large isolated surface like a bed or a kitchen island. You also need the presence of sympathetic adults. Now you do nothing. The game is painful at first because Baby instinctively expects an adult gaze and your adultness must fight the instinct to give attention back to Baby. After a few seconds, Baby looks worried, fidgets around, reaches for something, fails, looks at you hopelessly, and inevitably begins to cry. You must remain indifferent. From Baby’s perspective, everything breaks down. The game everyone agreed to play since birth is suddenly without the right players or behaviors. But don’t worry, Baby isn’t a mechanism that risks repeating a single behavior to death. Baby is a complex organism. The crying eventually stops. Faced with an openended game called living, Baby begins to play with what its got. Sometimes Baby even invents new ways of getting attention, or turns objects into adults. Where did that come from? You can barely hide your delight. But you must keep silent, emit no love, and let the game continue to evolve. You observe how the mismatch between habituated ability and novel situation produces ridiculous, pathetic, undignified, creative behaviors, all of which are irreducible to any one aspect of the game. You can’t explain it, but what has happened here has emerged truthfully.
Philip K. Dick said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Likewise, a truth is that which causally occurs even if you have no metric, name, or context to value it. It is a causality emerging from an ongoing cascade of messy causalities, with no inherent moral, goal, or affiliation. It is that which “writes itself.” Scientists, comedians, explorers all say they are in the game of uncovering truths. But this is no heroic activity. Truthspotting is often confusing, discomforting, impossible work, for most truths are not even perceivable or recognizable, which is to say, they occur at scales that are uncalibrated to human spacetime electromagnetic dopamine status maximization. Moreover, our perception expects 1 + 1 = 2, but reality sometimes gives us 1 + 1 = 3. Wetness from hydrogens and oxygens. Mob mentality from civilized humans. Consciousness from electric meat. When we say, “that’s so true!!!” we are for once glimpsing a causality in the wild in spite of our massive perceptual poverty. Yet truths are not rare—they are causing causes now and forever, at all scales of reality, making 2s and 3s, with or without our awareness or appreciation.
The opposite of a truth isn’t a falsity, it’s an ideal. An ideal is a frozen state of perfection—how the mess of reality should be for us. It prescribes a precise past and future that the present should aspire to reach and hold onto. Human existence is nothing if not defined, organized, and stabilized by ideals—names, titles, forms, heavens, hells, rituals, statuses, morals, myths, eras, scripts, models, supermodels, objects, laws, lingo. Crucially, an ideal can only exist through the consent and shared history of a community of humans. Ideals are the crude barometers from which we give status to every piece of reality’s mess: authentic, real, fake, imitation, miracle, imperfect, precious, natural. When a community stops believing in an ideal, the ideal becomes worthless noise, but reality is still there.
What is the relationship between an ideal and a truth? An ideal derives from observing a truth in the wild, coveting it, freezing it in the mind, sharing it, giving it a name, and thus a legible human value. We call this truth-toideal conversion event an idea. But conversely, an ideal that is actualized or replicated by humans into material reality immediately opens itself to encounters with influences too big, too small, too fast, too slow, too numerous, or too contradictory for humans to preserve against. From this uncontrollable porosity, truths transpire. We call this idealtotruth event a mutation.
You could say the ideal / truth split roughly equates to a humanist / materialist split, or a drama / comedy split, or a left brain / right brain split, or Deleuze’s beings / becomings, or what James Carse calls finite and infinite games. The temptation here is to idealize truths and ideals, choose a team, and avoid the pain of further confusion. Do you talk ideals or speak truths? Would you prefer to have an idea or a mutation? Are you a winner or an explorer?
But what if we could view truths and ideals not as a (idealized) binary, but as phases in a changing dynamic? And what if this view was not just the domain of philosophers, physicists, and Buddhists, but one for us to play with?
There is a technology for exploring this dynamic between truths and ideals at lower costs, less energy, less pain, less anthropocentrism, less speculation, and more variety: it’s called simulation.
What is a simulation? It is game for staging “ideal + ideal = truth” processes, a mutation machine for growing 3s out of ideals, enacted at a scale that humans can perceive. Like a comedy setup or a laboratory experiment, the premise of a simulation may be artificially constrained, focused on just a few elements, or staged to confront materials that would never encounter each other in the messy wild. This premise is simulation’s one big originating ideal, the perfect game. But once a simulation begins, everything that transpires from its premise occurs truthfully, untampered by human bias or knowledge. The materials, forces, and inherent energy artificially assembled here act and react on their own terms, writing themselves, generating 1 + 1 = 3 truths. The behaviors that emerge are only less “authentic” than PKDickian reality for those humans who continue to idealize a simulation’s premise, and who continue to meter each development with their own ideals. But just like messy unmitigated PKDickian reality, the more ideals you impose on a simulation, the more it mutates them into vulgar truths without stable status or worth. “Sims Gone Wrong” is Sims behaving perfectly truthfully.
In the short game, a simulation can be instrumentalized to identify new ideals and generate new ideas for a community. Boeing simulates new wing designs in a weather hangar. Amazon simulates website variations to uncover maximum clickthru behaviors. Soldiers simulate terroristic encounters in the Southwest. This kind of simulation ends when the game gets perfect and some truth of optimal human value emerges.
In the long game, a simulation can be left openended, producing an infinite cascade of catastrophic mutations from its premise. Darwin said the greatest simulation is nature herself, who incessantly tries and fails aloud, never stopping at perfection. When a local optimal state is reached, nature doesn’t idealize it, she forks it. In evolutionary history, you could say that nature forked chimpanzee, from which Homo sapiens emerged.
For humans eager to touch outside their own humanness, or for humans who long for a closer relationship to reality’s messy dynamics, an openended simulation may provide a new kind of exercise. The game is called Forking at Perfection: as the simulation produces change after change after change before you, and emergent behaviors and perceivable truths parade into your neocortex, you resist the awe of discovery, the stress of chaos, the delight of mutation, and the temptation to satisfactorily walk away then and there with new knowledge or ideas. Those are just humanscaled trophies. Instead, fork that feeling like nature forks perfection and keep the simulation in play. For learning to love this forkish feeling is learning to love the vulgarity of being alive is learning to love simulation and simulation might be all we ever really got.
by Liam Gillick
Twenty years ago an endless skeptic about the direction art takes in times of increasing economic polarization called to let me know that he believed someone was attempting to fake his entire collection of conceptual art. The idea seemed ludicrous. Yet notes, statements, simple instructions on scraps of paper—often with short dedications—were being offered for sale for a couple of thousand pounds and sometimes as little as a few hundred pounds. Faking conceptual art is particularly useless. Nearly every work was intended to be carried in your head, to express a universal quality, as something to be shared. Conceptual art’s use of systems and structures made the faking process pointless and easy to discover: works were numbered, catalogued or part of a series. Furthermore, the process of faking conceptual art depends upon the notion of a value that might be accrued from possession of an original. In almost every case the artist had been paid but often in ways that questioned the notion of ownership. Possession and subsequent transfer of the work were deliberately complicated at the moment of exchange, and in some cases the art structure would cease to exist in a meaningful form if sold. The original, therefore, was not always to be found in the artifact. This does not mean that conceptual art in its purest form has no value but that its value is not context free. It is an instruction, a potential, a reminder, a system of exchange. It is not an artifact without phantoms, shadows and obligations. Faking in this case would mean faking systems, exchanges and people. Attempting to fake conceptual art would require the creation of artists, structures, histories and potentials. The issue here was not the apparent ease of writing a list, statement or instruction on a piece of paper, but a misunderstanding of the hierarchical position of the “original” within the schema of the work itself.
During a time when art has become a contested site of ethical debate, the notion of the fake only retains power in relation to mass production. The only objects that give us pause or doubt are the fake iPhone, the fake bag, fake drugs or fake people. The fake car and the fake apartment are in development, although the misrepresentation of cars and property is a well developed art. When considering the fake mass-produced item it is necessary to take into consideration the fact that it may have originated from the same factory as the notionally authentic product. This awareness is what gives pause for reflection to those who agonize about art and its potential. For nearly a century the artist has been the producer of objects that also originate from some production site or another, and this has inverted the question of the fake and transferred the focus towards an attempted identification of the real. We look for the real and are indifferent to the fake. The fake has little meaning or function as an identifying marker for advanced contemporary art. It has long been replaced in the popular imagination by the idea of the con or trick—all contemporary art is a fraud in the comments section of a newspaper—few care if it is fake. In a period of de-training the notion of the real is something much harder to find, identify, and create a use for. Duchamp was real and seems to have existed. That is all we can be sure about.
The owners of a fake bag or iPhone or drug may feel that they have managed to gain a logo without a frame. With art the owners of the real have no way to prove their possession in a context of self-doubt and extending technological slippage. In fact the opposite is true. The constructed notion of the fake may be negatively applied to advanced art as a sign of its contemporary authenticity. Contemporary art cannot be faked. It is already a derivation and an endless duplication of itself. It is not possible to remove the logo from the bag in relation to art—as various fashion related foundations have found out. However when art meets the site of that which is actually worth faking, namely consumer products of desire, it begins to accumulate some of the characteristics that makes something worth faking in the first place. Yet it doesn’t acquire luster or become a brand; instead, all its signification is reduced to an overstated expression of its inability to be faked. Ideas get bigger and simpler, discursive potential is reduced and the ability to share or express the idea is communicated increasingly smoothly and seamlessly. This is where the luster of the work appears, in its smooth flow across media and spaces of economic exchange, in its apparent realness and event-ness. The zones created for art by luxury brands express their desire to dispel their own fake products via displays of art that assert presence, simplicity, event quality and spectacular interactive potential. The assertion of the real is where we might find the contemporary crisis. For the problem might not reside in the object itself. It has started to appear in a complex new duplicate: the fake exhibition.
by Darren Bader
There’s the signal (legacy), dominion, torment, legacy of the face. To look at it, knowing that you are somehow not not looking at yourself; to take, i.e. receive, from the face enough of its insuperability. Age has many guises, the face eternal. When beauty announces itself, when the grotesque emerges, when simple symmetries send sine waves, the face is talking, rarely the interlocutor. To denigrate the face implies violent law.
As one’s face is one’s own, it’s almost never there; the face seen is both presence made and unmade. What am I, seen among these others? Who are these others I both can and can never see? How-when-where does a common appear?
Considering face and image much the same, the eyes (even if instantly averted) will cleave to something. How to touch it? This is the issue I can’t get past. To touch the image, the structure crumbles (you must know the one I’m speaking of), and rather than force some faith in facial immutability, there are alternatives, feints, campaigns, resorts. For instance, take a new name, even if it’s the same name as always. Also, hold on as long as you care to—this may become a new image, seen well outside yourself. Another option is to desecrate your cherished as you pact yourself a penitence pack. Yet another would be to throw all caution to the wind, perhaps imagining your flesh torn to pieces by people/gods.
I was asked to write about impersonation. I impersonate many, though I’d usually doubt them persons. If I find great comfort or excitement in what I see, I try to make a heartfelt alliance. What binds me to what binds me is the sense that the surface of the seen can be touched, and through that, the impossible becomes possible, i.e. what you see is what you get—always an error.
The mirror is divine, wretched, pregnant, guileless and vain. The most I can participate in the theater of sight is in seeing how I often don’t belong. The fury and the affection that come about are ways of imparting a practice of touch to the untouchable.
If I could only taste enough of what it means to be sated (touch enough of what it “means” to have touched enough), that would be a pact between decency, climate, constancy, and humility. Sometimes the eyes see all they wish to and sometimes they wish for more.
If mind is a matter of appetites, there are many uncommon possibilities, all left to be sorted: sorted by consideration as an appearance; sorted in force as inevitability; sorted by chance as possibility (itself). In taking a look at oneself, there’s the unwatchable wending of order and chaos. A smile or a scowl may underscore a moment, giving face to what never was. Honesty is our concord, and where might it reside?