Ventriloquist Ontology explores the limits of control and hybridization between human and machine through the relationship of a performer and a wearable entity. This entity articulates text generated using the GPT-2 language model, trained on a dataset of texts around biopolitics, algo-governance, the surveillanced body, and queer theory, and manifests itself by producing involuntary movement through a series of linear actuators. The concept of ventriloquism is used to give agency to an ontological entity composed of subtle suggestive wearable modules, human flesh, and cognitive motor abilities, born-digital, able to produce novel language, but also conditioned to reproduce the biases of its algorithmic parts.
The continuous implementation of AI and ML systems in all areas of technological artifacts, including art, is challenging the ways in which we understand the world around us and urge us to consider other-than-human entities and ‘objects’ as equally important as human beings. In an exploration of such philosophical ideas that stem from the realms of Posthumanism, Actor Network Theory and Object-Oriented Ontology, ‘Ventriloquist Ontology’ encompasses the creation of a modular wearable, trained using Natural Language Processing to create its own personality that manifests in the form of speech and movement actuation. It explores the limits of control and points of hybridization between the human and the machine through the relationship of a performer and a wearable entity. This ventriloquist modular soft entity speaks through text generated using a GPT-2 language model, trained on a dataset of texts around biopolitics, algo-governance, the surveillanced body, and queer theory. Inspired by Alejandro Jodorowsky's dystopian theatrical play The School of Ventriloquists, this project manifests the idea of ‘soft control’ through the creation of a wearable that takes over the wearer's body and converts them into a puppet whose movement is dictated by what they wear.
The softness aspect of this control refers to the plasticity of the interface, the malleability of its hardware connections (mainly soft silicones wires), the suggestive nature that the GPT-2 generated text pertains to, and the indicative nature of the movement of the actuators (some of them rather than radically moving the body, offer a suggestion as to how the body can follow their rhythm of actuation). Sequentially, it brings forth the soft data of the body inextricably linked to ideas of care and intimacy, as well as to the pliability of the different levels of interpretation between the human and the machine. The aspect of control is tied to the cybernetic idea of steering the body to its optimal movement through a feedback loop between machinic language, and human assimilation. It also deals with the hardness of the linear actuators and the microcontrollers that manipulate them, to the domination of these mechanical components over the softness and vulnerability of the human flesh. It asserts the supervision of the artist over the system, on the curation of the content of both the generated text, and its performative aspect. Ultimately, the idea of ventriloquism is used to give agency to an ontological entity comprised of subtle suggestive wearable modules, human flesh, and cognitive motor abilities, born-digital, able to produce novel language, but also conditioned to reproduce the biases of its algorithmic parts.
The first seeds of the project were planted during the "Experiments with Algo-governance and Future-Making" workshop at the 4S-EASST Conference 2020 entitled "Locating and Timing Matters: Significance and Agency of STS in Emerging Worlds". During the workshop the first draft of the idea was presented and the philosophical aspects of linking the theories of Posthumanism, Actor Network Theory and Object-Oriented Ontology with AI and biopolitics through hands-on electronics and performance was discussed with the other workshop participants.
A year later on September 2021 the development of the project took place during a one-month residency at the Instrument Inventors Initiative (iii) in The Hague, Netherlands. Through an open call for performers, media artist Tingyi Jiang was selected as a collaborator. At the end of the residency period we rehearsed with the newly created system and did a local short performance in The Hague. Also, a short documentary was filmed about the process and a public workshop on the topic was offered entitled Algo-Bodies. More on the workshop can be seen on the documentary video.
Since then the performance has been presented in its current form several times at national and international venues, namely at the DXARTS concert in Seattle on February 2022, at the AEF (Athens and Epidavrous Festival) x CTM (Club Transmediale) festival in Athens, Greece and ISEA (International Symposium of Electronic Art) 2022 in Barcelona, Spain on June 2022.
In September 2022 a video version of the piece was produced which formed part of PCAI's (Polygreen Contemporary Art Initiative) "Sheltered Gardens" exhibition in Athens, Greece and virtually. The video version is a limited edition of 5 copies, and one was purchased by PCAI, and now forms part of their video art collection.
Ventriloquist Ontology is a particularly groundbreaking performance that uses body actuation and artificial intelligence to examine the relationship between body and machine. While there are many performances that use sensors on the body (i.e. accelerometers, motion tracking, bio-signals, etc) that modulate different parameters of the audiovisual environment (i.e. lights, visuals and sound), this projects' system focuses on how it can actuate the body itself - do it examines the use of involuntary movement - or movement suggestion to trigger the response of the performer. The use of AI in the creation of "new language" that examines this relationship together with the performers continues effort to follow the system's suggestions creates an immersive, emotive and poetic response to the public that is following the narrative that unfolds. And through that poetic experience many deeply contemporary questions about our relation to AI, ML and other-than-human entities are continuously generated.
Performers: Tingyi Jiang (in the Netherlands), and Carolina Marín (in the US)
Research assistants: Sadaf Sadri (GPT-2), James Wenlock (Python, BLE, SuperCollider)
Videographers at iii: Tanja Busking and Francesco Enriquez
This project has been developed with support from DXARTS, University of Washington.
iii’s residency program is made possible through the support of Creative Industries Fund NL and the Creative Europe program of the European Union.
Exhibitions and Performances
Sheltered Gardens, PCAI (Polygreen Culture and Art Initiative), Athens, Greece. Curated by Kika Kyriakakou.
Possibles, ISEA 2022 (International Symposium of Electronic Art), Recinte Modernista Hospital de Sant Pau, Barcelona, Spain.
Soft Control, iii Workspace, The Hague, Netherlands.
4S/EASST Prague 2020 Locating and Timing Matters: Significance and Agency of STS in Emerging Worlds, Ventroloquist Ontology artist talk as part of the "Workshop on Experiments with Algo-governance and Future-Making: STS Scholars as Designers".
Psarra, Afroditi. 2022. Ventriloquist Ontology. Published in “Prologoi”, edited by Miss Dialectic (Klea Charitou, Eleanna Papathanasiadi, and Kelly Tsipni-Kolaza), Athens, Greece, 126-131. https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1FwuOZ8UuGSRpOOfRh1ENGSGOyuv66J0V
iii research residency, iii Workspace, The Hague, Netherlands.
Algo-bodies: Identity, language and body actuation, iii Workspace, The Hague, Netherlands.