The House of Asterion
(after Borges, for Le Guin and to Haraway’s chthonic ones)
“Are computers what we think they are?”
This is an exploration of an alternative mode of computation, a multispecies cyborg assemblage that can, perhaps, help us crawl towards tentacular answerings of certain questions.
assembled by: Duncan Paterson
This piece is a celebration of alternative computational histories (and possible futures), a cry against capitalist machine-figuration, whispering of a world where meditative divination is the driving algorithm and refuge is the anti-teleological point.
The ants, as they forage, generate numbers. Here they are a form of processor. These numbers are mapped against a database of ‘Things’ (or objects), a non-encyclopedia with a flat ontology, itself compiled by foraging webcrawler programs. These ‘Things’ constitute a memory. The viewer then encounters a unique reading at the (screen) interface, where new associations can be made of the previously unrelated.
It’s necessarily a troubled, labyrinthine, entangled thing, which resists linear interpretation and rejects hierarchical, anthropocentric ways of being. The House of Asterion is a queer space, which thrives outside of the usual story. It also asks the viewer to leave behind digital and physical traces of their presence in the machine’s memory/shrine, ever-deepening its resources and possibilities.
Concept and background research
1. Rethinking the computer
Towards the beginning of the Research & Theory element of the course, we encountered a paper “Anatomy of an AI System: The Amazon Echo As An Anatomical Map of Human Labor, Data and Planetary Resources” . It effectively deconstructed our perceptions of the nature of a typical consumer computational device, in this case an Amazon Alexa. Their anatomy map (and accompanying 21 paragraph analysis) takes the lid off the seemingly simple and innocuous cylinder and dives into the materiality and data that makes it work. Put simply: “each small moment of convenience – be it answering a question, turning on a light, or playing a song – requires a vast planetary network, fuelled by the extraction of non-renewable materials, labor, and data.“
The compelling insight for me was that these inputs are entirely (and intentionally) hidden, with the consumer product appearing sleek, simple and ‘clean’, in stark contrast to the sometimes apocalyptically destructive mining processes that extract the rare earth metal necessary for its production, the massive amounts of energy it consumes and the way it captures and monetises data.
So I set out to examine more closely alternative modes of computing and to use them as a method to critique the myth of the ultra-slick, minimal consumer-durable computer.
2. Digital divination
In Andy Lomas’s class, we discussed the question “what is a computer?”. In answering, I think that any process that takes a set of data and performs calculations on it to deliver a result is a computational one, and the methods used to carry it out could be called computers. If this is the case, then computers predate many of our current definitions by many hundreds of years, because the art of Cleromancy (the casting of random lots, the interpretation of results, the delivering of a reading) fulfils all these criteria. I was influenced here by the thinking of Stepahine Moran in her paper “Coding the Digital Occult: ” in which she traces the similarities between methods of divination (for example pre-colonial West African Vodun traditions and the i-Ching) and the binary mathematics underpinning contemporary computing. Here she quotes the compelling thoughts of Skinner: “In this century, when computers now make many of man’s economic, political and commercial forecasts, it is easy to forget that these machines work on the same principle of binary mathematics as the infinitely more ancient machines of the I-Ching and geomancy.” 
So as I set out to rethink alternative modes of computing, I wanted to create a machine that used digital divination; to show how this concept of computing preempts certain Western methods, but also explore how the network of entanglements it involves can create a richly engaging experience.
3. Multispecies storytelling
Another important source of inspiration for this project - and throughout the year - has been Donna Haraway's “Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene” . It is a remarkable book in which Haraway’s methods of combating human-exceptionalism and critiquing the very idea of an Anthropocene are expressed in fluid, poetic and often mysterious prose, so unlike most academic writing and so much richer for it.
It is not only Haraway’s prose-style that I love, she is at once radical in her analysis of a world in crisis, but at the same time pragmatic in her call-to-action, asking us not to give up, but to stay with the trouble of this damaged world, to make kin with fellow species and work for “modest terran recuperation”. 
For Haraway, one direction to find this recuperation is in authentic Multispecies Storytelling, a way of being with fellow creatures that doesn’t depict them as alienated resources for human appropriation, both in terms of being physical commodities and as metaphor for cultural transactions. So here I wanted to see the ant family not as a metaphor for organised, hierarchical activity, as they are used frequently in this and other disciplines, but as directional of human behaviour in terms of the messages they generate and, more simply, the legitimacy of their presence in something called a computer. Also, when ants and their behaviour have previously been discussed in computing terms, it is in the realm of their stigmergic behaviour, examining the algorithmic effects of concentrations of pheromones and their decay rates. So I thought it would be interesting instead to look at their movement through a different lens, and let them simply gift us a number each 16 seconds.
“It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.” 
With this piece, I am trying to use my assemblage to create new stories, new not-exclusively-human places from which to view the world; at the very least to prompt questions that could lead in these directions.
Haraway’s approach to material-semiotic entanglement has also affected the embodiment of the piece, in as much as I asked the student cohort to leave offerings/gifts on the shrine, or digitally by leaving a ‘Thing’ via a QR code, so that they would themselves become entangled in its physical and digital structure.
I was also struck by the setting of the Chimera Garden show - in a deconsecrated church. So I decided to respect this context by staging my work as a shrine, where ritual behaviour would open, sustain and close the piece.
4. Object Oriented Ontology/Alien Phenomenology
A further theoretical influence on the piece is the Object Oriented Ontology as explained by Graham Harman  and the Alien Phenomenology of Ian Bogost . First and foremost, because in my mind, the ‘anti-correlationist’ approach they both advocate is entirely compatible with Haraway’s struggles against the Anthropocentric, human-exceptionalist ways of behaviour that are so damaging to our world.
If we understand Correlationism to mean that until this point, most of Western philosophical tradition has interpreted the ontological reality of the world solely in terms of its relations with humans, an approach that “lamentably negates the possibility of thinking or knowing what the world could be like ‘in itself’, that is, independently of our all-too-human relation to it.” So an anti-correlationist philosophy allows for a reality independent of the human gaze, where an ontological world can exist outside human sensory perception, where objects can exist in, and of, themselves.
So to put it (very) simply, humans are not at the centre of everything, so I’ve put another species in charge of this piece - an ant family.
In parallel, I was reading ‘Alien Phenomenology: What’s it like to be a thing?’ where Bogost explores the idea of a Latour Litany as a way of describing Object Oriented thinking. Inspired by French philosopher Bruno Latour, it is simply a list of objects (things and ideas) with a flat ontology. It is a playful, fascinating way of looking at words/things that generates unexpected and sometimes surreal juxtapositions. So I decided to compile a Litany of my own, which I’m calling an Ontograph, as my non-encyclopedia (named because an encyclopedia is full of things that have been deemed to have importance, whereas in my list everything has equal meaning). I would then use this ever-growing, ever-changing list as a reference to map the numbers generated by the ants.
Again, to put it simply, a Borgesian Book of Every Thing could surely contain the answer to any question a viewer might ask. So if a viewer stayed to see 5 or 6 words, they could then make their own interpretation of what they may - or may not - mean. Such is the millenia-old tradition of cleromancy.
INSPIRATION FROM OTHER ARTISTS
My primary artistic/aesthetic inspirations for the conception and build of this piece are two writers, Jorge Luis Borges and Ursula K Le Guin, and the visual artists Nam June Paik and Carravagio.
Firstly, the name of the piece, ‘The House of Asterion’ is sourced from a Borges short story . It tells the seemingly familiar tale of Theseus and the Minotaur, yet with one important difference: the story is told from the Minotaur’s point of view. This focussing on making the subject the ‘other’ is something also reflected in the writing of LeGuin, specifically her story ‘Mazes’ , where in a story of laboratory experiments on a captive alien, we are given the creature’s point of view as it tries without success to communicate with its human captor. I was also mindful of Carravagio’s painting of Medusa, which portrays her not as a murderous monster, but as a sentient creature, shocked and bewildered by her brutal murder at the sword of a stranger. So these three artistic visions of difference and otherness inspired me to re-think a mode of computing from an outsider position.
Most importantly though, to the development of this project, was the work of Korean artist Nam June Paik, who’s work I love for its ‘experimental, innovative, yet playful’ approach . I saw, with some fellow MA students, Paik’s exhibition at Tate Modern earlier this year. What impressed me most was how he took profoundly complex subjects (the advance of technology and its effect on human ways of being, such as creativity and religion) and produced simple, often poetic works with great emotional impact. In particular works such as TV Buddha, 1974 where a statue of the Buddha watches himself via a cctv; or One Candle (also known as Candle TV) 2004, which is a profoundly poetic meditation on the human/tech relationship made of just one candle in an empty tv set.
Computational art with its routes in theory, such as this piece, can often risk over-complicating the experience for the viewer. So I was inspired by Paik to take my ideas and make an artefact that was, on first approach, something simple and appealing (some ants, a laptop, candles and a screen), but should the viewer want to engage further, then the concepts underpinning the piece would reveal themselves in a thoughtful way.
To bring my idea to life, I built some simple and robust technology. First, I took a computer vision programme in openFrameworks that uses frame differencing to video the movements of the ants in the vivarium, using a PS3Eye camera to generate an integer number each 18 seconds. The challenge was to pick up small movements of the ants, in dark conditions, so consequently I think that the flickering of the LED candles produced a lot of the movement I was measuring. The ants themselves were easy to work with, there are many online resources with ant-care advice and I was careful to choose a species native to the UK, so after the show they could be safely released into the wild.
In parallel, I used python-based webscrapers harvest items for the Ontograph. I saw these programmes as analogous to the ants, in the way that they go out foraging for things to bring back to their home. I also used a QR tag linked to an etherpad to gather words from friends and fellow students, as it was important that there was a community involvement in the piece. Also, when scraping the web, specifically Wikipedia, I found that certain groups (for example women and People of Colour), were notably underrepresented, perhaps because of the demographics of Wikipedia’s editors and contributors  so I wanted to capture our cohort’s diversity of ideas, backgrounds and languages.
I then took the word selected by the ants and mapped it, in a random way, against the content of the Ontograph. I displayed the result using a flocking algorithm written in Processing, based on an example in Shiffman’s Nature of Code. I chose this method of display as it looks fluid and organic, the way it reveals each word is suitably mysterious and the merging of one word into another strongly communicates the feelings of entanglement I was aiming for.
This piece is very much a work in progress. I have experienced it both as a functioning prototype and an effective method of gathering things (the physical and the virtual objects of the shrine, alongside reactions/comments/suggestions from viewers across the four days of the show). I strongly feel that for my practice, the act of exhibiting should be one of sharing, listening and discussing, more of a dynamic process of interactions and conversations than a ‘show’, with its connotations of a one-way broadcast from artist to viewer.
I would like to restage the piece with a much larger database of things in the Ontograph, with a wider range of languages. I would also like to explore using different creatures than ants to generate numbers for the readings, specifically the crows that live nearby on Hackney Marshes, who I have been working with throughout lockdown. This would involve the piece being distributed in space (whereas now it’s a self-contained unit), which would add another level of complexity to the concept.
I am also using the lessons I learned on this project to inform another exploration of multispecies cyborg assemblages, I am assisting artist collective 0rphan Drift in the preparation of their Kraken project, which seeks to learn about cephalopod behaviour by creating an AI intermediary .
Overall, I was very happy with the way the final piece turned out, and it broadly achieved the aims and ambitions I set out with. Principally, that there were different levels of engagement - some viewers just observed the procession of words, while others were interested in the concepts behind the work. I was at the Church for much of the exhibition and discussed the work’s execution and ideas with many attendees (socially-distanced, of course). I found that the piece often prompted the conversations that I had hoped it would. Furthermore, the ‘readings’ it delivered were interesting, provocational and sometimes full of humour. I was also pleased with the way the piece literally grew over the four days of the exhibition, both in terms of items left on the shrine (including a Mario Mushroom sweet tin, some sage, cigarettes, facemasks, money, sunflowers and a SuperDrug loyalty card to name but a few) and the digital ‘Things’ left on the Ontograph, in many different languages.
Improvements could have been made to the lighting of the piece, in particular the QR codes asking for digital offerings were not clear enough. Also, the explanation/description of the piece was necessarily displayed on the wall outside of the darkened room, but it was not seen by most and was too distant from the work. I was pleased with the staging of the work, however it perhaps looked more ‘gothic’, even sinister, than I imagined so would address this in future.
I would have compiled the Ontograph differently from the outset, although the process I went through was an interesting lesson in the inherent bias in categorised systems of knowledge. In fact, I would probably examine this more explicitly in any future iterations of the project. Also, during the Viva Mike suggested that the particle system for the words should never fully resolve, giving an added air of mystery - this is definitely something I will explore.
References (heading #6)
 Crawford, K & Joler, V. (2018). Anatomy of an AI System: The Amazon Echo As An Anatomical Map of Human Labor, Data and Planetary Resources.” AI Now Institute and Share Lab.
 Moran, Stephanie. Coding the Digital Occult: The Binary [Techno]Pagan and Vodun Ontologies of Cyberspace. Stephanie gave this paper at the Occulture Esoteric Conference in Berlin on 17/18 November 2018.
 Skinner, S. (1980). Terrestrial Astrology: Divination by Geomancy
, ,  Haraway, Donna. (2016). “Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene”.
,  Harman, G. (2018). Object Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything.
 Bogost, I. (2012).: Alien Phenomenology: or, What’s it like to be a Thing?
 Borges, J-L. (1949). The House of Asterion, El Aleph.
 LeGuin, Ursula K. (1975). Mazes.
 A good example of this bias is explored here: ref: a good example of this is explored here: https://www.chemistryworld.com/news/female-scientists-pages-keep-disappearing-from-wikipedia-whats-going-on/3010664.article
Code references (heading #6)
For my openFrameworks app I adapted code from Week 12 of Workshops in Creative Coding by Theo Papatheodorou. I also consulted fellow MA students Yishuai Zhang and George Simms.
For my generative graphics display I was inspired by code from Jason Labbe for https://www.openprocessing.org/sketch/377231 and of course the ever-present Daniel Shiffman’s Nature of Code, Chapter 6, Autonomous Agents and Arrival Behaviour. I also received advice from fellow MA student Jakob Jennerholm Hammar.