If you could design a future world, what would it look like? Modern polymath Alice Bucknell’s given it quite a lot of thought.
Drawing from seemingly disparate disciplines from architecture and new technologies to mysticism and magic, this American artist / writer has gone so far as to spending three months working intimately with AI GPT-3 (a deep-learning language model) to co-create speculative future environments.
Her most recent collaborative work, New Worlds, is being run as a series of five events with nine artists at London’s Somerset House Studios through the summer months – a fitting post-Covid return to the real world envisioning alternative visions of the future.
If you’re intrigued, read on to learn what Alice Bucknell learned from co-writing with AI, radical unlearning, and pursuing survival as a collaborative project.
How’s 2022 treating you so far?
Hey! Pretty good so far, despite the current retrograde…I’m grateful to be back in real life after a long Covid winter, animated by all the spring growth, and excited for the summer season of New Worlds!
Your projects cover so many lanes, and you yourself play a lot of different roles. How would you describe your work and what you’re trying to achieve to someone who has never seen or experienced it?
Across my practice – which spans art, writing, teaching, and curating – I’m interested in the process of making worlds, drawing from seemingly disparate topics including architecture, anthropology, ecology, magic, and technology to create speculative environments that think critically about the future. This practices takes many forms – whether it’s building speculative future environments in game engines, collaboration – with AI, or bringing together artists and thinkers whose work inspires me – and I like to think of it as perpetually metamorphosing, always adapting in form and framework to the project at hand.
Credit: Somerset House Studios / Artists Lawrence Lek and Evan Ifekoya for New Worlds
Your work with New Mystics and New Worlds ties together two areas that at first seem very disparate – mysticism, magic and new technologies. What inspired the concept?
The years I spent as a freelance art writer underpin the project, which started out as an essay for Mousse Magazine back in 2019. I noticed the emergence of a multimedia, interdisciplinary practice that could broadly be connected through an overlapping interest expanding mysticism, ritual, and magical thinking through new and emergent technologies like AI and game engines.
I wanted to write an essay that wove together those practices and interests in a non-prescriptive way. Ultimately, I realised any kind of writing published in an international art magazine will have an aura of professional rigidity that’s unavoidable – even with the most open-minded editors! So, I decided that in order to really dive deep into the open-endedness of the project, it had to become its own thing.
Creating the New Mystics platform allowed me to bring more artists into the mix and find a collaborative, polyphonic writing style that was channelled through a techno-mystic medium itself – in this instance, the language AI GPT-3, with which I co-write each text. New Worlds is an opportunity to expand the collaboration even further and also bring it offline post-Covid, into experiential, one-night-only events where the sub-themes of New Mystics can be encountered.
Credit: Somerset House Studios
By now, most of us are somewhat familiar with the broad concept of AI. But as someone who’s worked so closely with deep learning, thinking and writing with AI GPT-3 – what was that like? What surprised you the most through that process?
The most surprising thing I learned was actually a kind of feeling.
For a language model that, despite its vast leaps forward towards artificial general intelligence (AGI), has been criticised for lacking logic and text understanding in its output, GPT-3’s capacity to string together sentences that flip the lens on so many of my dominant and automated thought patterns and knowledge systems was like an existential sucker punch that took me by surprise every time.
Particularly in the construction of texts written about magic and technology in collaboration with artists, I started to think that the typically human-centric models of evaluating AI (like the Turing Test), were actually missing the point. That GPT-3 (and other language models) is able to produce a kind of magical affect, if it triggers new thought processes and opens up alternative perspectives among its human users – and if that transformative process or ritual kind of binds the human and non-human authors in a language system we can feel but don’t fully understand – that’s what excites me the most about using that technology within the context of New Mystics.
And what did you personally learn from that experience?
That the default anthropocentric reading of AI (e.g. where its ‘human likeness’ equals intelligence) is not simply unnecessary, but actually precludes more critical and exciting thinking about and with AI.
Working with GPT-3 super intensively for three months, I actually experienced a kind of cognitive-linguistic rupture (though sadly temporary) wherein I started to think, speak, and structure sentences more like the AI language model itself. It was a kind of polyphonic thought experiment in practice – the borders between myself and GPT-3 became porous, sticky and melted; in that time, it became increasingly difficult, and ultimately irrelevant, to distinguish between the AI and human authors.
Credit: Somerset House Studios / Artists Sammy Lee and Zadie Xa for New Worlds
Tell us a little about the artists you’re collaborating with for New Worlds / New Mystics. How did that come about?
Roughly half of the artists in the New Worlds program are artists who were involved in the first season of the New Mystics project; the others include artists and writers with equally expansive practices that I hugely admire. In the New Worlds program, I wanted to bring together a group of artists and writers whose practices sync up and challenge in interesting ways some thematic undercurrents I saw emerging in the New Mystics project: ideas around nonlinear time, ecological storytelling and non-human authors, sound and the senses as world-making technologies in their own right, and many more.
How much of your visions are aligned or wildly different? How did you approach bringing together all those different perspectives?
Save for the penultimate event with Bones Tan Jones, whose practice holds so many worlds as its own kind of cosmic carrier bag, each of the events brings together two artists whose practices have some thematic overlaps as well as departures. I wanted to create a kind of productive friction that refuses to let us congeal or get too stuck down with a single perspective of a theme – bringing multiple practices into conversation for one night only creates a sense of flight and an ongoingness that I think is a very productive tactic for imagining new worlds.
Credit: Somerset House Studios / Artists and writers Himali Singh Soin and Alex Quicho for New Worlds
How do you personally see our future headed? Are you an optimist?
Yes, for sure, and to an extent, a reformed cynic!
In spite of (or perhaps because of) the myriad challenges facing us in the present – as much environmental as ideological, social, and political – I think now is a time for humans to practice radically unlearning certain frameworks largely wielded by Western culture that have led us into this mess (e.g. linear time, techno-progressivism, hierarchies and divisions between human and non-human life, unchecked capitalism), while holding multiple possible futures in our minds simultaneously. An exercise in what is called ‘quantum thinking’. For all the carnage we have wrought upon this planet, humans are estimable good adaptors, so I am optimistic about the work ahead in devising a survivable future for more than one species.
What role does sound play in your process or works?
In my own practice, sound plays a huge component. In my video works, which tend to unfurl through the perspective of multiple actors (human and non-human) rather than any particular expressed event, I work closely with a musician and friend, Ken Yama, to devise a score. Often the score attaches itself to those characters – you could say each has a theme song – or, as is the case with my current project exploring three possible futures for Mars, sound attaches itself to the worlds in question. In conjunction with moving image, I think of sound like a portal that can drive the audience deeper into the narratives of the characters or worlds.
Credit: Somerset House Studios / Artist Bones Tan Jones for New Worlds
How do you view NFTs and the metaverse for creatives like yourself? Is it something you’re actively embracing?
I’m interested in where these technologies are heading, and keeping a critical watch on their social, environmental, and aesthetic impact. Right now, I think it’s the classic case of the technical capacities of the hardware lagging behind the ideology driving the technology, but I have seen artists like Sarah Friend or Ryan Kuo and gallerists/curators like Kelani Nichols and Peter Wu+ approach the technology in aesthetically interesting and culturally meaningful ways: exploring new distribution tactics, unilateral artist-buyer relationships, shared ownership models, etc.
It’s not a stretch to say that the state of the world over past few years has been unprecedented. How did the pandemic affect your perspective on our future? How do you feel your work has evolved as a result?
I think there’s been a real pivot during the Covid era towards the need to critically and collaboratively imagine new worlds and alternative futures in the midst of what feels like an ongoing slow apocalypse.
I think for many people in the West, for whom the effects of capitalism’s unchecked growth and the climate crisis will be felt the least and the latest, the pandemic was a real exposure to the ways we have been foreclosing our own future. I also think it’s important to think critically about the Western fixation with the apocalypse. It’s an idea that for people in the West feels unprecedently, alarmingly ‘real’ or imminent in recent years, but the apocalypse is also a condition or way of survivance that indigenous communities have been subjected to for centuries.
My work tries to unravel or open up some of that complexity and potentials for the future without collapsing into a single techno-utopian ‘one trick’ survival strategy.
Credit: Somerset House Studios / Artist Joey Holder and collective Omsk Social Club for New Worlds
And lastly, what do you want people to take away from your work?
I’d like my work to produce a sense of active re-enchantment in the face of disaster – a kind of critical optimism that decentres the human.
I hope my work sprouts thought-seeds for what’s possible in thinking about the future as a form of collaborative survival: respectful partnerships with more-than-human intelligence, coupled with a kind of radical unlearning around our own species hierarchies and the damage we’ve done to the Earth, and finally, a turning away from the anthropocentric focus of the so-called Anthropocene.
I’d like for people to leave the work animated by the productive possibilities of a future that considers survival as a collaborative project, and a right for more than one species.
Experience Alice Bucknell’s New Worlds in real life at Somerset House
Cover Credit: Somerset House Studios
Writer | Soyoung Park
Soyoung is a perpetual third culture kid currently in Hong Kong as Sound of Life’s Lead Editor. When not at her day job, she lives to explore and daydream about the underwater world.