Lynn Hershman Leeson: Weibel-/Manning-Bot

Peter Weibel: “I understand. What do you think about the fact that the painters, visual artists, producers of art pictures have lost their monopoly over the picture to the photographer, the filmmaker and video artist, indeed, to the visual mass media?”
Seeker: “Here, I think one needs to draw further distinctions.”
Peter Weibel: “Do you really think so? What, in fact, do you want to ask me?”
Seeker: “I’ve no idea. Should I ask a specific question?”
Peter Weibel: “Never mind.”
In dialog with the bot by Peter Weibel, December 2, 2014
Welcome to the A.D. age. In Lynn Hershman’s vocabulary A.D. is short for »after digital«. Parallel to the large-scale retrospective entitled »Civic Radar«, ArtOnYourScreen (AOYS) presents the works »Weibel-/Manning-Bot« (2013–2014) of Net Art by the North American artist. Hershman, born in 1941, once announced her plans to develop a virtual character based on programmed artificial »intelligence«, designed to reach a large public. Its answers would comprise material drawn from the Internet. For AOYS she has now actually gone ahead and implemented her idea originally from the »B.C.« (before computers) age, and programmed three so-called chatbots. The word chatbot is a composite of the English word »to chat« and »bot« (the abbreviation for robot). A chatbot is a text-based dialog system – computer software, which behaves such that the answers appear to stem from a human being. For the realization as artistic personality she sought out none other than Peter Weibel, Director of the ZKM, and Chelsea Manning, the Wikileaks informer whose sentence of thirty-five years imprisonment has meanwhile become legally binding.

AOYS thus presents the most recent development in a work series which began with »Agent Ruby« (1999–2002). »Chelsea Manning« (Engl) and »Peter Weibel« (Germ/Engl) are two Web agents based on artificial intelligence, which uncannily formulate the portrait of the two actually existing personalities. They are part of both the virtual and material worlds. Their conversation with users and their agreement is influenced by Web traffic. Lynn Hershman’s bots possess a never-ending life-cycle. The personae are initially injected with an »information chapter«. Each respectively uniquely designed webpage constitutes the basis on which the entity searches for new material for the databank and answers questions, adopts a position, and changes the subject. In the process the contents point to the iconified persons who act as their representatives, at times manifesting in irritating absurd-surreal conversations.

One of »Peter Weibel’s« data-sources, for example, is the ZKM blog. The answers equally reflect society’s concerns and begin to evolve their own characters, depending on how the machines are »fed«. They thus reveal, as it were, the multiplicity of the uses and shape a changeable »identity« from aesthetics, the experience and interests of the users and create, as Hershman describes, a unique, virtual fingerprint. Furthermore, through the hermaphroditic dialog situation Lynn Hershman Leeson updates one of the core thematic features of her artistic work which, with the video disc environment »Lorna« (1979–1984) marks the emergent reactive art. However, for the bots, the artist did not need to stage within an exhibition space the promise of an experience suggestive of intimacy. Due to the generally private context of Internet usage – even by Smartphone in public spaces the users appear to act in a kind of monastic cell  – the works thematize a series of subsequent questions beyond the whistleblower and the ZKM Director.

They allow for a distance to the continued affirmation of technology, question its identity, counteract and ironize it. Furthermore, at least in the case of Chelsea Manning, they bear witness to the bitter global political situation since September 11, 2001. Manning resigns in the face of ominous state power which even a highly respected character in resistance circles is clearly unable to resist. Accordingly, she both acknowledges and capitulates to the courts: “How could I, a junior analyst, ever believe I could change the world for the good – beyond the existing authorities? I know that I can become and will be a better person. I hope for an opportunity to prove myself, not only through words, but also by deeds.” This prompts associations with the best moments during the Spanish Inquisition. »Renounce« is the motto. As only could be expected, the North American state has proved itself merciless: when, on July 30, 2013 Chelsea Manning was pronounced guilty on 19 of a total of 21 charges by a military court in Fort George G. Meade, this did not end with 35 year’s incarceration and a 100 000 dollar additional fine. As if this were not enough, Manning was also dishonorably discharged from the military, and thus forfeited her pension claims. With the quotes from the databank, as a person Chelsea Manning remains – under pressure of the raison d’ état – in memory, thereby documenting in an artistically distorted fashion, the behavior of an unjust state which is either incapable or else willfully blurs the distinctions between actual treason and a justified release of information to the media as informed by an act of personal conscience in a free state.

It is precisely by way of this choice of Chelsea Manning who, born as Bradley Edward Manning, in 1987, and thus as a man, that we see reflected the loss of an apparent security and strength of the sexes and their roles, since the focus on gender identities in this work by Lynn Hershmann Leeson short-circuits the technical components of formalized discourse with disciplinary measures in the military dispositive. Aside from gender-theoretical, political-military and sociological contexts and in view of the history of art, each work amends both the ancient artistic genre of the portrait and augments it by means of contemporary technology.

Author: Matthias Kampmann