When I had envisioned my invitation to Sabine Haraway's estate, I had never figured in its proximity to the metropolitan area. I had always imagined the stereotypical gothic romance, an isolated manse on a plot of manicured land, edged with twisting forests. Pristine, or at the very least estranged from the overpopulated cities, since you know, Sabine Haraway abhors humans.
Or so the media likes to perpetuate between acknowledging her advancement in the field of robots and bioengineering and her apprentice scandal of the last decade. Or why she no longer collaborates with other engineering projects or gives lectures on theoretical limitations of artificial intelligence.
"No partners, no children. Why else would a woman spend her entire life with alone with machines?"
Instead, the little rabbit-eyed doll she sent brought me here, to the heart of the warehouse district echoing the hum of electromagnetic hoverways. Shabby, dilapidated, a skip away from the worse for wear areas where young gutter ravers often disappeared at the wrong times and outmoded automaton reproductions shamble into regressed consciousness.
It was a trick. She changed her mind. I had somehow failed Haraway's expectations and she trolled me out into this vapid shithole.
But then I looked closer at the building across the street from where we stood. It was a repurposed hotel, with a loading dock and rooftop covered in solar panels and wind turbines. A building with Neo-Classical architecture, a self-sustaining fortress with access to energy and commerce.
It means Haraway is definitely still working.
Only but an hour ago I had been pacing the Post Contemporary Wing of the Wolfson Museum of Art and Technology, fretfully recording myself in cavernous halls with too much echo. She had sent me to see Recreation of Bruna Schulte's "Cloud in Room No. 2501 ", an installation I was more than familiar with. A century-old conception that inspired the gleaming renaissance of our current technological advancements, a simple vapor contained in a controlled environment and looped over and over again, gathering, furling, hanging in the air.
She didn't say what anything else in her message, so I stayed in front of that exhibit, watching it reform, gather, dissolve. Prayed at the shrine of contemplation in a temple designed to elicit reverence and awe. I didn't know what Haraway expected from me. It was hardly the most visually appealing of Schulte's clouds, which she had done all over the world over her career. Photographs and video recordings of clouds floating in 17th century French architecture and Roman replicas of Grecian reliquaries.
The part that always got me was the first word of the installation title: Recreation.
Then I looked up from my hunch and saw a small shape of a girl in white gauzy flounce watching me. It was an automaton, made to look a like a child's pet, with wide, sloping eyes like a rabbit or a Mesopotamian goddess, liquid black glittering from beneath a heavy fringe of blonde, but the soft, pleasing click of its joints as it approached revealed a material more brittle than polymers or resin. Pointed chin, narrow chested, thick claves. My stomach had lurched in sudden recognition.
I knew then that Haraway was watching me. Sent one of her little finely strung entourages in her place, leading me through the museum. The way the automaton avoided passing through the wing of cybernetic installations and virtual paintings, even some of Haraway's own work, made me think that it was probably just a doll, a puppet that she controlled remotely with one of her own threading codes.
I look back at the doll, which was now watching me unblinkingly from the center of the street.
Would you rather go back where art goes to die? She tilts her head with an expectant gesture. Her lips don't move, the voice sounds hollowed and muffled, a woman's voice issuing from inside a child's body. We can't stay out here for long, Windom. She lifts her hand again.
Was this what I was waiting for? Was this all that I wanted? It struck me for the first time, standing in the shadow of Haraway's monolithic presence. I was finally confronting the greatest inspiration in my career, and I felt physically ill, all the hope and longing and blurry-eyed hours spent laboring over modeling programs churning in my guts. Was I willing to sacrifice the enormity of my future at the alter of a woman I worshipped for years?
I followed through the automatic gates and ungainly security cameras, up an old caged elevator, the kind that plunged and shuddered in your stomach as it lifted past empty cavernous floors.
What happens when you get to meet your god?
God had been Sabine Haraway, the moment I had first seen "Birdie" at the Wolfson. It was an automaton modeled like the doll standing beside me. It wandered around a small bedroom-like installation with a small songbird flitting around a cage. It stayed in that room, with that bird in the cage, until one day, it would finally open the door to the cage and let the bird fly out. And when it did, all the delicate little threads of code lifted away, limitations and all, and the automaton crashed to the ground and moved no more.
I was never there for when it "died"; the point was that it was unknown when the automaton would finally open the door. It was a shining model of Haraway's theories of thresholds in artificial intelligence, a criticism on the then growing market for companion android models, laborers, programmed from the infamous Asimov's The Three Rules of Robotics. It was not an experiment, or a solution to a problem. It was a question—the question.
And now I stand in yet another temple of contemplation, an old flat inhabited with a myriad of figures, trembling over fields of gathered velvet and spare parts. Giant networks of wires and strange golden lines trail across the ceiling, glittering and shifting in the distance.
And God was there, sitting on a fainting couch, waxing before the blue-white glow of monitors as they blinked awake. The automaton crosses the room and eases into a chair that leaves her feet dangling over the edge. The woman on the couch rises, gathering herself as she straightens up. She wobbles faintly on dark spindle legs, draped synthetic blacks, and smiles in a slightly lopsided way that calls attention to the rigidness of her pore-less skin.
"Windom," Haraway cracks, reaching out with a bony hand. "I hope you appreciated the escort model. I had to do some trawling into your online history, I am sure you understand…"
I start at the cold grasp, at the suggestion that she had vetted my personal information on the net, but not surprised. The automaton design of my guide had been no coincidence. "Of course, Miss Haraway."
"Do you know why you are here? Why I told you to study an installation you've seen at least a dozen times throughout your education?"
Her dark, red-rimmed eyes seem to sharpen at the corner, winged. I don't answer because I was fairly certain it was a rhetorical question, and I was trying to be as graceful as possible. Haraway hardly takes apprentices on. The last one had been over seven years ago. Severe, demanding. Easily disappointed. So I've heard. So I've seen thus far, with her mouth a cruel smooch of red.
"I want to see how well you are at listening."
She paces around the couch, looking briefly at the motionless doll folded into the chair. Haraway is impossibly aged, with china-white skin, finely boned. The thick coil of hair coiffed on her head trailed an elegant tangle that brushed a too-thin waist, which creaked as she bent forward to examine the doll.
"In the 1500's, art and industry were working in tandem with one another. Great masters such as Da Vinci and Dürer were men of both the arts and the sciences. Then artist identities emerged from the anonymity of artisan houses. The unsung heroes are named, are fetishized. Craftsmen diminished into companies of industry. Over the centuries, the division between the scientists, the seekers of knowledge, and the artists, the bringers of truth, grew."
Her bloodshot eyes dragged at the corners with a cursory glance. "And thus began the development of the art institution, years of creative repression under the yoke of preservation and yet, the constant need for innovation. The immense legacy of art that was constantly re-contextualized. What a terrible burden to bear, isn't it?"
Haraway's lips pucker in grimace, and I mirror it back. She means the installation, forever in stasis, a soulless reproduction.
"So you can appreciate the irony when Bruna Schulte created hovering clouds within controlled environments, when it commenced of the age in which art and science were united together after centuries of estrangement." Her voice bounced tremulously around the flat, a broken note in the back of her throat. She weaved on the points of her heels, circling the room. "It was the perfect time, following the throes of Post-Post-Contemporary art and the redundant declarations of the so-called 'death of art'. The moment in which the clinging specificity of art discipline dispersed within the ever-diversifying field of multi-media practices. The beginning of the Neo-Renaissance which defines our contemporary world. A single cloud dissolving in the echoing chambers of long dead cultures which inspired a century of art and science in service to one another."
"It undermines the transient nature of clouds to keep it sustained in a controlled environment," I answered carefully, fingers fretting behind my back. The doll continues to watch from the chair. "In the same way innovation and advancement was simultaneously encouraged and repressed during the Modern and Post Modern Eras, so does it now."
Haraway pauses, nodding in approval. "I trust you understand how these sentiments factors into my own practice?"
Artisan automaton maker. Creator of the breathing porcelain android, cybernetic puppetry. Haraway of the uncanny valley. First pioneer in the advances of brain synapse mapping. "I understand your disputes with the current automaton industry."
"You see how they've used these advancements to take the intangible cloud and keep it sealed in a box, forever cycling over and over? Schulte has been dead for over 50 years and yet they box up the thing she's never wanted to live again—if it could even be called living," she continues breathlessly. "What I do the corporations could only wish they could capture and twist it into their reproductions. When I first started this work it was just about the sure will of creation, the craft, the art. Now, I spend just as much effort protecting my intellectual property from being seized by corporate entities with more agency than something rendered in human form, even patterned with human synapses—"
Dozens of headlines flash through my head, bouncing between synapse modeling and the dangers of artificial intelligence programming. Thresholds, limitations. Lawsuits. The last apprentice of Haraway cooked out the brain of their dying lover trying to transfer consciousness from human to automaton. The songbird flying through the open door of its cage. The liquid black oblivion of the doll's eyes, the spinning pinwheel of truth that seizes me in one awful moment.
"—so you understand all the paperwork at the law firm you go through. These corporations rely too much on engineering, structure, formulas. What can be reproduced and controlled. What I make now cannot be recreated with algorithms and lines of code or controlled by thresholds. The line between artifact and artifice."
"So tell me," I trembled, no longer looking at Haraway, but at the doll. "How long has your real body been dead?"
The Review Game's May 2016 WCC Entry