We find ourselves at an intersection of disciplines and materialities where tentacular, rhizomatic connections link past with the present, animate with the inanimate. The foundations of the old and the matter yet to come, here are entangled together – engendering unexpected outcomes.
With this piece, I want to ask: can an animistic approach to computation help us foster more co-operative relationships with our surroundings by revealing the inseparability of matter?
produced by: Pietro Bardini
I. Matter Was Alive, Then It Fell Into a Void
from time without
there in midst of the paths
in the midst of the winds
covered with the droppings of birds
grass growing from your feet
your head decked with the down of birds
in the midst of the winds
Aged one. 1
Most of human existence was spent cultivating relationships with the sensuous environment. Everything was alive and everything spoke. For oral cultures, knowledge was a relational and collaborative process between the perceiver (human) and the perceived (material, non-human). Language was embedded in the landscape and in the dynamic, interconnected reality between living and non-living. In this Omaha poem, “words do not speak about the worlds; rather they speak to the world, and to the expressive presences that, with us, inhabit the world”. 2
These voices fell quiet with the imposition of Western culture. David Abram, in The Spell of The Sensous, identifies this silencing of the landscape with the advent of the alphabet, which disconnected our senses and abstracted perception to an apparently autonomous, mental dimension. The mind began to give up its sensuous compass and separated itself from the animate earth.
This separation brewed in Europe and sailed with the colonialists towards the rest of the world. Practices of symbiosis with the landscape were classified as uncivilised and primitive, and offered to justify claims of ownership in the discovery of virgin territories. Colonialism and the reductive lens of the early sciences pushed animateness into a void – “‘the “untended’, ‘uncultivated’, ‘uncivilised’ spaces are empty rather than plentiful”, 3 and up for grab. Nineteenth-century positivism “saw animism as a failed epistemology, an error or, at best, an immature stage in the development of individual and society”. 4
To think animate means to think through assemblages rather than through separate entities. Nothing, in this lens, is auto-poietic: “nothing makes itself or self-organises”,5 everything is both an assemblage and part of one, everything is a product of a myriad rhizomes and one. Assemblages are made of non-hierarchical connections. There is not a single line of heritage, but lateral, non-linear patterns of growth: “each plateu can be read starting anywhere and can be related to any other plateu”.6 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari use language as example for assemblages, as “language is not pure, connected only as a series of hierarchical signs. To see language as a rhizome is to see it as a heterogeneous mixture of words, things, power, and geography.” 7
In the dense undergrowth of a monoculture forest, where the light is faint
rhizomatic shoots began restoring the soil’s fertility and a multitude of trees slowly reappeared.
Animateness re-surfaced from darkness in the particles of Quantum Field Theory (QFT). The void that was opened by centuries of autopoietic, detached practices (summarised well by Maturana and Varela’s assertion “we do not see what we do not see and what we do not see does not exist”8), suddenly was no longer a backdrop but an active participant in universal dynamics. QFT showed that: “even the smallest bit of matter – for example electrons, infinitesimal point particles with no dimensions, no structure – are haunted by, indeed, constituted by, the indeterminate wanderings of an infinity of possible configurings of spacetimemattering in their specificity. Entire worlds within each point, each specifically configured.” 9
Karen Barad’s agential realism, showed that by moving away from the Newtonian view that “matter is inert and there are external forces acting on it”, and by reading QFT through contemporary critical theories, we can understand matter to be inherently active but also that “it is only through the workings of apparatuses of bodily productions that forces come to be distinguished as social, biological, geological, political, etc”.10 In other words, matter is animate at its core, but the degree of its animateness emerges from the interaction with other bodies. By reading matter through animism, we can view it as a place of intersections, and itself a participant in the act of world making.
Matter is neither fixed and given nor the mere end result of different processes.
Matter is produced and productive, generated and generative.11
Matter, a term that we can extend beyond the subatomic particles of QFT to include all assemblages, has agency in this sense. With this notion of agency (that everything is essentially part of generative processes – and with this it comes the power to divert processes), moves beyond the humancentric “idea of agency that connects it to conscious decision-making and personal intention”, which gives “generally little scope for considering agency beyond the strictly human realm”.12
Betti Marenko argues that “agency is not something that objects have. Rather, agency is something that emerges out of encounters with things. It is in the milieu of these encounters – between things and us, and between things and things – that agency is actualized”.13
All these lines can be brought to a single point to reclaim the term animism, and in doing so finally acknowledging the relevance of thousands of years of symbiotic relationships with the landscape that modern Western practices tried to bury. With animism we assert that matter has always been animate, and each part of it – down to the split atom – is a testament to it.
Reclaiming animism does not mean, then, that we have ever been animist. [...] Animism may, however, be a name for reclaiming these assemblages, since it lures us into feeling that their efficacy is not ours to claim. Against the insistent poisoned passion of dismembering and demystifying, it affirms that which they all require in order not to enslave us: that we are not alone in the world. 14
III. Sounds Together
After having established what animateness could mean, we can now contemplate how this notion could be applied to computation and how this could be used to generate new matter.
Assemblages should now take the role of participants in a conversation: not inert nor flat but involved agential powers that shape and are shaped through a constant interaction with other participants. Each participant communicates through its voice and within this, is a trace of all the rhizomes that brought it into existence. Take your voice, on a close look it is a product of your body’s structure and age; backing up a step we can say that it developed from the voice of those you grew up with; if we move further again, we notice that your voice mirrors your cultures and with a further step back we can say that your voice represents the last stage in the norms of social interaction that developed through millennia.
Within sounds these sources collide to form an entangled, indivisible conglomerate. At the same time, sounds are, by essence, vibrant and have lives that transcends their sources. The sound of my voice is the product of an assemblage, but it still exists as a physical force with its own set of properties.
We can experience a sound without experiencing its source, and the source without the sound. So while sources generate or cause sounds, sounds are not bound to their sources as properties. Sounds, then, are distinct individuals or particulars like objects.15
Salomé Voegelin adds that “we are not able to measure a past sound, only past sources of a sound”. She continues “sounds do not rest on a supporting material; there is no sonic arche-fossil. Instead, they invisibly and inexhaustibly generate the texture of the world.” When I hear you talking outdoors, I do not hear your voice, but your position, your surroundings, the wind, the cars all at once, I hear myself within it. It all happens at once and there is no backtracking, “sound as material is an event, an expansion in time and space, that generates an environment, which I inhabit not at the center of it but centered by it.”16
At this point, we can draw a parallel between sounds and subatomic particles, both are in essence active and animate, yet both gain forces when bodies interact with them. Sound, like matter, is generative and generated and a participant in the conversation. I have asked you to shift from a visual to a sonic sensibility because in this way we can better grasp the unpredictable and collaborative nature of matter.
Everything remains fluid and uncertain, not necessarily as precarity, as a state of anxious fragility, but as a serendipitous collaboration between the multiplicities of the “what is.” Sound, I will argue, aids the reimagination of material relations and processes. It makes appreciable other possibilities of how things might be and how things might relate, and serves to consider positions and positionings of materials, subjects, and objects in a different and more mobile light.17
SampleVAE is a machine-learning algorithm written by Max Frenzel and implemented in TensorFlow. It uses convolutional VAE with Inverse Autoregressive flows and an optional classifier network to generate sounds. It works by taking audio samples as inputs and outputs new data. “VAEs are generative models. This means that after being trained on real data, they can generate seemingly realistic data by taking points from their latent space, and running them through the decoder”. 18 VAE stands for Variational Autoencoder, where autoencoder means establishing an encoder and a decoder as neural networks and using iterative processes to determine the optimal encoding-decoding coupling. With this tool we can either use a pre-trained model or train a model on our choice of sounds. We can then then use the model to combine these sounds. For example, we can train the model with sounds of cars and sounds of food being cooked. We can then combine the sound of car exhaust with the sound of potatoes cooking on a stove – the result will be a novel sound which combines the two but takes in consideration all of the car sounds and all of the food sounds.
Voices collide and re-combine in the silent choices of the algorithm – on the other side, we are presented with the sound of new matter being born. Buried deep in the frequency spectrum are the infinite rhizomatic connections that informed it. What we hear are relations and materials, their pasts coming back to life under new forms.
If matter is a participant, then computation is the conversation. Or better the moderator of the conversation. A regulated exchange of information that invites for blind corners to be explored – say it louder so that everybody can it hear it! By getting here through the paths of animism we took the long arduous route, but we can now view the landscape from above. Machine learning is no longer just a tool to extract invisible data, but it can become a way to highlight the assemblages that came before us and in doing so reveals their inseparability.
An issue might arise: by projecting animistic qualities onto technological objects without asking ourselves what animate means, we risk further distancing ourselves from these mediums. Animateness does not need be invoked for the sake of making things animate, but for its potential to de-centre the role of humans in a more-than-human world. The focus should be in highlighting relationships rather than hiding them behind magical thinking. What we should move towards is what Betti Marenko calls animistic design, as “animism offers a way of thinking about interaction differently: neither from the perspective of the user, nor from the perspective of the object but from the ongoing modulation of their less-than-predictable interaction”. 19
V. Opening Contours
The sound piece below brings together samples generated with SampleVAE. This is a practical intervention that builds on the animate properties of computation. In this instance, I needed to set boundaries to the composition to have a practical output. For this reason, I recorded sources strictly within my bedroom and living room.
These recordings, which resulted in 81 two-second samples, were then used to train the algorithm. With this trained algorithm, I created 60 new two-second sounds, which were arranged using IRCAM’s Catart. This is an advanced granular sampler that allowed me to scan through the 60 sounds and arrange them into a composition. I did not undertake any further post-processing editing apart from some reverb.
1. Lincoln, Kenneth. Native American Renaissance. 1. paperback printing, Univ. of California Press, 1985. p.22
2. Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World. Vintage Books, 1997. p. 71
3. Barad, Karen. “No Small Matter: Mushroom Clouds, Ecologies of Nothingness, and Strange Topologies of SpaceTimeMatter” in.
Anna Lowenhaupt, editor. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. University of Minnesota Press, 2017. p.113
4. Marenko, Betti. “Neo-Animism and Design: A New Paradigm in Object Theory.” Design and Culture, vol. 6, no. 2, July 2014, p. 225. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.2752/175470814X14031924627185.
5. Haraway, Donna. “Symbiogenesis” in Lowenhaupt, 2017. p.25
6. Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. University of Minnesota Press, 1987. p.22.
7. Adkins, Brent. Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus: A Critical Introduction and Guide. Edinburgh University Press, 2015. p.23
8. Maturana, Humberto R., and Francisco J. Varela. The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. 1st ed, New Science Library: Distributed in the United States by Random House, 1987. p. 242.
9. Barad, Karen. “No Small Matter: Mushroom Clouds, Ecologies of Nothingness, and Strange Topologies of SpaceTimeMatter”, p.113
10. Ibid. At index.
11. Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University Press, 2007. p. 137
12. Sayal-Bennett, Amba. “Diffractive Analysis: Embodied Encounters in Contemporary Artistic Video Practice – Tate Papers.” Tate, https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/29/diffractive-analysis. Accessed 6 May 2021.
13. Marenko, Betti. “Neo-Animism and Design: A New Paradigm in Object Theory.” p. 228.
14. Stengers, Isabelle. “Reclaiming Animism”. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/36/61245/reclaiming-animism/. Accessed 6 May 2021.
15. Cox, Christoph. “Beyond Representation and Signification: Toward a Sonic Materialism.” Journal of Visual Culture, vol. 10, no. 2, Aug. 2011, p. 155. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1177/1470412911402880
16. Voegelin, Salomé “Sonic Materialism: Hearing the Arche-Sonic”, The Oxford Handbook of Sound and Imagination, Volume 2, Aug. 2019, p. 5, DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190460242.013.43
17. Ibid p.3
18. Frenzel, Max. “SampleVAE - A Multi-Purpose AI Tool for Music Producers and Sound Designers.” Medium, 8 November 2019, https://medium.com/qosmo-lab/samplevae-a-multi-purpose-ai-tool-for-music-producers-and-sound-designers-e966c7562f22.
19. Marenko, Betti, and Philip van Allen. “Animistic Design: How to Reimagine Digital Interaction between the Human and the Nonhuman.” Digital Creativity, vol. 27, no. 1, January 2016, p. 53 OI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1080/14626268.2016.1145127.
Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World. Vintage Books, 1997.
Adkins, Brent. Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus: A Critical Introduction and Guide. Edinburgh University Press, 2015
Barad, Karen. “No Small Matter: Mushroom Clouds, Ecologies of Nothingness, and Strange Topologies of SpaceTimeMatter”. Anna Lowenhaupt, editor. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. University of Minnesota Press, 2017
Borck, Cornelius. "Animism In The Sciences Then And Now". E-Flux.com, 2021, https://www.e-flux.com/journal/36/61266/animism-in-the-sciences-then-and-now/. Accessed 15 Feb 2021.
Cox, Christoph. “Beyond Representation and Signification: Toward a Sonic Materialism.” Journal of Visual Culture, vol. 10, no. 2, August 2011, DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1177/1470412911402880
Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. University of Minnesota Press, 1987
Frenzel, Max. “SampleVAE - A Multi-Purpose AI Tool for Music Producers and Sound Designers.” Medium, 8 November 2019, https://medium.com/qosmo-lab/samplevae-a-multi-purpose-ai-tool-for-music-producers-and-sound-designers-e966c7562f22.
Haraway, Donna. “Symbiogenesis”. Anna Lowenhaupt, editor. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
Lincoln, Kenneth. Native American Renaissance. Paperback printing, Univ. of California Press, 1985.
Marenko, Betti, and Philip van Allen. “Animistic Design: How to Reimagine Digital Interaction between the Human and the Nonhuman.” Digital Creativity, vol. 27, no. 1, Jan. 2016, DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1080/14626268.2016.1145127.
Marenko, Betti. “Neo-Animism and Design: A New Paradigm in Object Theory.” Design and Culture, vol. 6, no. 2, July 2014, DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.2752/175470814X14031924627185.
Maturana, Humberto R., and Francisco J. Varela. The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. 1st ed, New Science Library : Distributed in the United State by Random House, 1987.
Mbembe, Achille. "Meditation On The Second Creation". E-Flux.com, 2021, https://www.e-flux.com/journal/114/364960/meditation-on-the-second-creation/. Accessed 15 Feb 2021.
Sayal-Bennett, Amba. “Diffractive Analysis: Embodied Encounters in Contemporary Artistic Video Practice – Tate Papers.” Tate, https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/29/diffractive-analysis. Accessed 6 May 2021
Stengers, Isabelle. “Reclaiming Animism”. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/36/61245/reclaiming-animism/. Accessed 6 May 2021
Voegelin, Salomé “Sonic Materialism: Hearing the Arche-Sonic”. The Oxford Handbook of Sound and Imagination, Volume 2, August 2019, DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190460242.013.43
Cerith Wyn Evans, Composition for 37 Flutes (2018)
Mariska de Groot/Dieter Vandoren, LSF1/LSF2 (2015–17)
Martin Howse, ERD Eurorack Modules
Adam Chodzko, O, you happy roots, branch and mediatrix (2020)