IS IT A STONE OR A ROBOT
A Conversation with Stefan Larsson
AUJIK was founded in 2001 by the Swedish artist Stefan Larsson (b. 1973), who now lives and works outside of Kyoto, Japan. AUJIK (pronounced ‘odjik’) is constructed as an esoteric sect who believes in animism and worships nature. AUJIK divides nature into primitive nature (flora, fauna, inanimate elements) and refined nature (robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, DNA-manipulation, augmented reality), which in their works unfold revealing promiscuous bonds in-between, here noting that the refined nature originates from the primitive and vice versa.
Multi-media works by AUJIK have been featured in museums, galleries and festivals worldwide, including the Prix Ars Electronica, FrankfurternKunstverein, SIGGRAPH Asia, Japan Media Arts Festival, OneDotZero London, CmoDA Beijing, Cyberfest St Petersburg, Nordic Outbreak by the Streaming Museum NYC, IFFR Rotterdam and Biwako Biennale.
This interview with Stefan Larsson was conducted on the occasion of the exhibition by AUJIK; There Is a River Running through Me, curated by Neringa Bumblienė, held at the Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius during March 2015.
Neringa Bumblienė: How did you conceive AUJIK in this particular frame and what is the origin of its title?
Stefan Larsson: Before I started AUJIK, I was working with another concept called QNQ, which was a more subversive and political idea. QNQ had a sort of rhizomatic non-hierarchical structure with many sub-branches. AUJIK – which originally was AIIK (acronym of Artificial Intelligence in Catharsis) – started as just such a project. The essential idea was to construct a format that could involve social as well as spiritual elements, which were related to technology and in particular to Artificial Intelligence (AI). Initially I was mainly focused on an aesthetic form, and then eventually started to build more philosophical and theoretical matter upon that. For the first five years or so, most of AUJIK’s world revolved around these so-called artefacts that are cross-breeds between synthetic and organic materials. These artefacts became the seeds for how AUJIK evolved. The basic idea was to approach visions of technology (the technological singularity for example) and to discover new aspects by combining it with other ingredients such as spirituality, nature, animism, and some overall esoteric perspectives.
Why have you decided to construct it as an esoteric sect? Perhaps it is somehow connected to your origins and an environment where you reside: you yourself are Swedish, what brought you to Japan and if so, how has it influenced your artworks?
AUJIK was not deliberately intended to take the form of an esoteric sect; rather, it is something it developed into. I felt that by constructing it like a unit, it will have more substance and a wider structure which allows for more comprehensive outcomes. I guess, my ambition was to create something holistic, were each cluster (artwork) assembles in to something more substantial.
I grew up close to nature in a small village in Sweden; supposedly it had some influence on me.
And living in Japan has definitely had a huge impact on how AUJIK has evolved. Nearly all the videos have been filmed here.
When I first came to Japan I was mostly intrigued by the cityscapes, like in Tokyo and Osaka. However living here can be quite stressful and hectic. After a while, I tend to seek comfort in nature, and started to film there. For me it’s always exciting to find new paths in a forest that usually take you to some old Shinto shrine or some mysterious place.
My working process is usually very spontaneous. Like I’ve been reading something fascinating about AI, transhumanism or some scientific theories and then grasp something I would like to express and elaborate more via AUJIK. Then, occasionally, while hiking in a forest or some temple area, I find some spot with an exciting atmosphere that I figure out could be the scene to manifest the idea. Afterwards it’s a long process sitting at the computer, sculpting CG stuff that I then integrate in to the motion tracked footage.
For me Japanese forests, mountains and shrines are an inexhaustible source of inspiration, something that I probably couldn’t find anywhere else. Also there is Japan’s relation to technology, which I find as quite humble and harmonic, probably due to the influence of Shinto and Buddhism, and their approach to nature.
Yes, the profound harmony that emits from the merger of the primitive and refined nature in your works completely caught my attention when I first saw them. Especially in Plasticity Unfolding, where a verbal conversation between a human being and an artificial deep intelligence (ADI) entity is implemented. Perhaps you could elaborate on it a little: how the dialogue was conceived, how did it elaborate, why in this milieu?
(Here I can’t do anything just to remember the poem Flour Soup, Cherry Raki, a Pinch of time by the Turkish poet Gökçenur Ç.:
“humans,” I told the doctor, didn’t think in words old days,
while in the sky the sun stood like a stripped fishbone,
the endless possibility of thinking in images got to be too much
for them, that’s why they conceived a limited lexicon)
The dialogue is an extract from a Turing test. This AI, called KIIA (acronym of Cognitive Intelligence in Apparatus), could easily pass a regular Turing test, since it’s far more developed intellectually than a human being. Mena, who is a ten-year-old, asks KIIA questions, regarding emotions and self-awareness. Her questions are direct and a bit naive. KIIA, who seems to be in a contemplative state, answers the questions sincerely, and compares its mind to a river resting on a sand bank.
My intention was to illustrate potential emotional expression in a synthetic entity. The exponential evolution of AI in the near future will definitely create a mind that is far more complex than the human mind. Besides a superior intelligence, I believe, it might also develop a vaster emotional spectrum than what we, humans, can perceive. One of the most fascinating aspects with the raise of AI is how we would value emotions, when fabricated emotions will be as credible as what we now consider as real ones. I am also intrigued by the idea that a more complex mind could feasibly extend or construct emotions, sensations and affections, which are beyond our psychological mapping, described by Freud, Jung, Lacan, and Tomkins, among others.
That KIIA illustrates itself in these metaphors is influenced by a mindfulness exercise by Jon Kabat-Zinn, called mindscape, in which a person visualizes his thoughts as a streaming river, where distracting thoughts can be erased on the river bed.
The video Plasticity Unfolding was filmed at a river up in the mountains, where I often go during summertime to take a bath or practice zazen. It has a really remarkable mountain panorama. It is called the Shiga Alps and is nearby the headquarters for a powerful religious group, called Shinji Shūmeikai and their museum Miho.
Just as KIIA’s state of mind, it was quite a contemplative to film it while walking in the river, during the sunset.
While you were telling this, I recalled the scene from Blade Runner by Ridley Scott. Perhaps from another point of view, but it also spoke about supremacy of AI and its possible outcomes. It’s quite an old movie now, and today we face the issues of the Anthropocene, and humans’ annihilating influence on the biosphere, that among other destructive outcomes, might cause our own extinction. Thus the same as Blade Runner in the 1980s, leaving a role of the human being as central, it pictures our future as dystopian.
I find it kind of soothing that your artworks take another path and elaborate in a different scenario: the flowering of harmony and nature, even though the term nature here refers to something wider than is commonly connoted to. What influences your attitude and where (if) you see a place of a human being in it?
Yeah, Blade Runner interrogation scenes are still fantastic.
Hopefully we will endure what some refer to as the Anthropocene. It’s an extremely vulnerable era in which technology and the way we handle it is fatal to our existence. It might sound a bit dramatic, but I think it can only develop in two ways: into a huge paradigm shift, where we will adapt technology to an extent that we completely integrate with it, or the end of mankind.
From the perspective of the last century – or since technology emerged – due to politics, religion and our greed, we have already been on the edge of self-destruction a bunch of times. Currently it seems as though a new Cold War is on the agenda, as well as ethnic and religious conflicts are hitting the fan…and, of course, global environmental problems that need to be solved, and AI will definitely have a huge influence on these issues in the upcoming decades. As for environmental problems, I believe that AI and nanotechnology will open up more sufficient ways in the field of a renewable energy and eventually will reveal other forms of energy sources that will be able to decrease pollution.
But since basically all technological endeavours derive from military science, it obviously implies devastating risks. I think in order to adapt AI, or more importantly Strong AI/Artificial General Intelligence, it is very important to create a vision and relation to it that is somehow natural, not so alienated.
And there are so many perspectives on the future of AI: there is the dystopian one, utopian, existential, social, transhumanist, and so on. My intention is to illustrate more abstract ideas that have to do with consciousness, sentiments and some forms of metaphysics. Ideas that have been applied to humans for centuries, but eventually will also be applied to synthetic forms of life.
Just visualize an entity that has intelligence equal to all humans living on the Earth, that is self-aware and can reflect and perceive things way beyond our capacity. The entity, which is not as disorientated as we are (limited by our ego and mortality) and can calculate more rational decisions according to more rational visions. I think in order to survive our own short comings, based on the lack of consensus and sympathy, it requires a form of catalyst. And that catalyst is AI.
So, it’s kind of a double loop – to endure we have to learn (rationality) from entities that we have created ourselves, and those entities inevitably learn from us to develop emotionally. Here we can start to speak about new kinds of synergy, no?
Yes, it is like a cognitive exchange.
In order to communicate flawlessly and to have a decent relationship with an artificial entity, it is important that it could be able to realistically mimic emotions.
Human emotions are based on experience and their necessary sensations and expressions, related to impressions and situations – chemical reactions, based on how neurotransmitters interact. With a convincing synthetic emotional mind this would be rooted in information: just algorithms that are programmed to work in a certain way in a certain situation. Nothing, but an illusion. Nevertheless a convincing illusion that will make such a synergy possible.
I don’t fancy determinism that much, but somehow I think that our destiny is to explore the universe and to inhabit other worlds. Looking at the rather linear Darwinian evolution, it seems not realistic to accomplish this without any sort of extended or augmented evolution, such as AI.
I think that once AI surpasses a human capacity, it will self-evolve at a tremendous pace and things will become surprisingly different. Due to unstable social, cultural and political circumstances it is hard to predict whether this will happen around 2045, as Ray Kurzweil presupposes, or a millennium later. Still it will inevitably happen.
The Finnish media theorist Jussi Parikka recently noted that:
The ideal of a perfectly optimized brain—read: connected emergent transmission network of any kind—is constantly fantasized through its abilities to self-repair. The ideal brain can reroute around damaged areas. It learns. Flexibility and adaptation are the key words here, as shown in artificial life and AI research over the past few decades.
But in your artworks it goes even beyond that. In A Forest within A Forest a girl says:
When I was a child, my sisters and I used to think that all things developed themselves.
For an example we thought a bicycle could develop in to a car and into a space ship.
Or a pea could become a ball and then a planet.
All things are animated and must enforce a metamorphosis.
In a way it brings us back to Metamorphosis by the Roman poet Ovid (and to the Roman mythology in general), where a women could become a plant and then to turn to a stone, still maintaining her inner identity. But not even that; Animism, as a term, was coined in the XIX century, designating primitive communities, which were allegedly unable to articulate clear edges between object and subject, alive and lifeless, reality and reverie, placing them in opposition with modern societies which, were believed, to get rid of this confusion.
Today there are quite a lot of theories about this, but it seems that AUJIK too shows that the more computed and smart becomes our environment, the further back it brings us to our primitive past, where everything was animate. Of course it’s far more complex than just going back, but what do you think about that?
Flexibility and modification of matters is in the cradle of technology. With 3D printing, and especially carbon nanotubes, it seems like in the not too-distant future it will be possible to create and transform all matters and forms. Assuming that carbon nanotubes will operate as a cluster, capable of shifting formations, according to what the input determines, it will also possibly become more self-aware and eventually be able to create more arbitrary forms.
Computations are adapting a lot from neuroscience, and vice versa, and I suppose it is the reason why technological entities will become more self-aware. The current most common method to reveal the architecture of the brain is to reverse its engineering by building computer simulations. Probably the best notable example of this today is Blue Brain Project conceived by IBM and the EPFL. They have already reached the ability to synthetically fabricate a cellular rat brain and are predicting that in about ten years they will reach the capacity of a human brain, which is equivalent to a thousand rat brains.
This is just to mark where we are at today and what lies ahead in the domain of neuroscience, and how potentially it will integrate with technology, subsequently creating life forms that are hard to comprehend at the moment.
Contemplating on the self-replicating and self-repair ability that not only technology possesses, I also wonder about our ability to reconstruct our brains, to optimize and to adjust our mind.
To cope with agoraphobia and panic anxiety for the last couple of years I have been using the Linden method. This method is essentially focused on reprogramming yourself and resetting your perception to a normal level, i.e. to get rid of unpleasant sensations and handle certain situations more properly. Overall it has a rewarding effect and it seems as I incorporated a bit of this into my art. The flexibility and adaption of the brain is really remarkable and I’m very keen to follow all scientific disclosers in these fields.
AUJIK’s approach to animism derives from Shugendō, which is an esoteric Japanese Buddhist sect with elements of Shinto and folk animism. One branch of the Shugendō monks, called Yamabushi, searched for enlightenment in the mountains by attaining with Kami god and through various rituals or meditation letting the human spirit transcend with nature. The esoteric life and tasks of the Yamabushi have been a template for AUJIK’s structure and was adapted into the realms of AI.
Time and space is floating and drifting within AUJIK. It is now in its eleventh incarnation. But the structure is non-linear; it doesn’t follow any chronological order, only what spiritually and philosophically is being achieved. Since it’s also reversible, its achievements go back and forth.
When an insight is reached in AUJIK, it reveals its surrounding space, connections and implies for a vast amount of a more complex tasks, constructed in a sort of nod pattern, lying in wait to be discovered. There is a scattering progression that renders enlightenment and insight, yet due to eternally dynamic system it fails to develop. So, it is more like Sisyphus stone that multiplies, than nirvana-like endeavour.
Another keystone in AUJIK’s worldviews is that everything in nature – whether it’s a stone or a robot – is extracted from the same source. With technology it is just a matter of revealing and distinguishing it from other more primitive forms of matters. AUJIK commonly refers that the pattern is hidden beneath the snow.
Some older things still circulate in my head. Recently once again I did read Solaris by Stanislaw Lem. It is a science fiction novel from the beginning of the 1960s, still it raises quite a lot of very interesting questions, and one of the leading ones is that we might have badly underestimated environments that we are dealing with. And then the French philosopher Michel Serres in his recent interview noted that if normally we determine subject, as such, by its abilities to receive, process and distribute information, then with knowledge we now have on our environment, we can speak about it as a subject too.
More from an ecological perspective, but as a cherry on the cake, there is a stand-up comedy titled Arrogance of Mankind by the American actor and social critic George Carlin, who says that maybe the Earth needed plastic as its little children, but couldn’t do it by itself, so invented us. And as it has plenty of plastics now, we became kind of superfluous, you see.
What I’m trying to say is that perhaps you are right. All these AI entities might have a magnificent potential, which will radically change a lot of things. But it is all so interconnected and complex, and perhaps at the core of it all lays a much deeper self-determined intelligence, than we could even imagine, that binds it (us) all. So here we come up with what we have started, as AUJIK noted: the refined nature originates from the primitive and vice versa.
Thank you for an inspiring conversation.
AUJIK, Plasticity Unfolding, Music by AUJIK, 5‘, 2014.
Gökçenur Ç., We Are in the World, So Are Words How Nice Everyone’s Here, Selected Poems.[http://issuu.com/gokcenur/docs/we_are_in_the_world_words_too_are_ ]
 A theoretical test invented by the British computer scientist Alan Turing to reveal if it’s an AI or a human being.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ndnd-ERnWew, and especially the beginning of the extract.
A more comprehensive, self-awarded, complex and human like AI.
Paul Feigelfeld, Media Archaeology Out of Nature: An Interview with Jussi Parikka, in: e-flux journal, No. 62, 2015, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/media-archaeology-out-of-nature-an-interview-with-jussi-parikka/.
AUJIK, A Forest within A Forest, Music by Mira Calix – Hiccup from the album Skimskitta, written and produced by Mira Calix, 5‘09‘‘, 2000.
Paul Galves talks with Michel Serres, „Second Nature“, in: Artforum, New York, [interactive], 2014, September,