Library Infrastructures and Alternative Intelligence

Art and technology projects have a long history, but what happens when you add into the mix libraries and cultural institutions? The Library’s Other Intelligences project, part of the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York’s MOBIUS Fellowship Program, turned to investigate the new Oodi Central Library in Helsinki as a site of public art through commissioning new works from young Finnish artists. The project opened in January 2019, just after the grand opening of Oodi, and stays open until March 10.
Samir Bhowmik & 00100 ENSEMBLE, Memory Machines, 2019, performance. Photo: FCINY

The space is swarming. Singers dressed as medieval-meets-futurist beekeepers mull about the space with microphones linked to the building’s public announcement system. Library patrons, noticing the extraordinary scene, stop their usual business to listen. The foyer turns into a sonic performance. Suddenly, the soundscape comes from inside you – or so it seems –, shifting its focus in the space, from person to person. An ultrasonic speaker enables this odd effect, wherein the music is directed only at you, while it also seems to emanate from within. An odd spatiality of private listening in a public space surrounded by dozens of people.

Tuomas A. Laitinen’s Swarm Chorus started the Library’s Other Intelligences with a unique performance. A multi-panelled installation immediately inside the building’s entrance featured generative videos and paper scrolls depicting organisms and swarms. This site served as a staging ground for the beekeeper-singers’ live performance, which likewise combined old and new media forms: medieval canons composed with generative tools. Generative video images, haunting sounds and futuristic (almost apocalyptic, considering the current bee colony collapses) costumes staged a different kind of a library.

Swarm Chorus was one of the three works that we commissioned and curated as part of the Library’s Other Intelligences. Together with Jenna Sutela’s nimiia ïzinibimi and Samir Bhowmik’s Memory Machines, these pieces turned the library itself into a stage for artistic performances, installations and imaginary micronarratives of other worlds, where emerging alternative intelligences are not merely narrativised through AI as Artificial Intelligence, but as Architectural Intelligence, Ambient Intelligence, Alien Intelligence, and indeed, as Artistic Intelligence.

Despite the reluctance to offer a celebratory account of AI, technology was a central theme in all of the works. While we wanted to investigate the library as an ecology of knowledge and information – a hat tip to its historical role as both a site of contemplation and as a site of collections – we also wanted to include the sense of “ecology” to environmental themes and to technological ecologies, too. Neural nets and generative tools play a role in Laitinen’s work but also Sutela’s take on other languages: nimiia ïzinibimi is an artist book and video based on an invented new language representing those who lack first-hand access to, or the ability to produce, “natural” language. It welcomes and embeds more-than-human voices into the Helsinki Central Library’s collection. The content of the book draws on nimiia cétiï, Sutela’s ongoing experiment in machine learning and interspecies communication. It documents the interactions between a neural network; Martian language from the 1800s, originally channelled by the French medium Hélène Smith; and movements of Bacilli subtilis, extremophilic bacteria that, according to recent spaceflight experimentation, can survive on Mars. The video and the book play with these different scales – from microorganismic interactions to Martian landscapes. The beautiful book will stay as a permanent part of the Oodi collection – of course in the Other Languages section.

But technology refers not only to specific tools, like neural nets and ultrasonic speakers, and even language itself. The library and its architecture are themselves one large machine for information processing and a “life support” system for cultural memory. This large-scale infrastructural angle is brought to the fore by Samir Bhowmik in his Memory Machines tour, which takes participants to restricted areas of the Oodi library. With performance group 00100, the library’s basement, book transport system, HVAC, and electrical systems are brought alive through a dynamic investigation of both the mechanical landscape of automation and the human labour that directs and powers those systems. The piece poses additional questions: How do the flows of data, heat, matter and energy sustain cultural memory? What intelligences and futures can we uncover in the machines and bodies that labor within the monument of the library?

The whole of Library’s Other Intelligences was framed around questions that emerge from research in media studies, infrastructural studies of libraries, and critical studies of technology – but these questions were in our case answered through art methods. Instead of being merely a curatorial project it become a research platform where questions, approaches, investigations, techniques and methods were exchanged across disciplinary expertise. The project team’s interaction with Oodi staff and technicians was a critical element of our investigations: installing these works in a setting that is very different from a traditional art gallery or exhibition space opened up new ways of understanding how architecture and labour and specialized knowledges function in such public institutions.

The project then became a test bed for collaboration that produced work for the public but also served more specialized purposes: it tested experimental methods, invented theoretical and artistic concepts, and, in the process, reimagined the agenda of public institutions in a technological culture. It was also one of the benefits of being able to work as part of the Mobius fellowship collaboration that allowed this three site engagement between scholars and artists in New York, UK and Finland.

MOBIUS Fellowship Program, organized by the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York and the Finnish Institute in London, brings together curators and other visual arts professionals on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. International work periods and thematic collaborations form the core of the program. MOBIUS is supported by Kone Foundation.

Author

Jussi Parikka & Shannon Mattern

Jussi Parikka is Professor of Technological Culture & Aesthetics at University of Southampton’s Winchester School of Art. He is also Docent at University of Turku and author of several books, including Koneoppi (2004), Insect Media (2010), What is Media Archaeology? (2012) and A Geology of Media (2015). He is the co-editor (with Joasia Krysa) of Writing and Unwriting (Media) Art History: Erkki Kurenniemi in 2048.

Shannon Mattern is Professor of Media Studies at The New School. Her writing and teaching focus on media architectures and infrastructures and spatial epistemologies. She has written books about libraries, maps, and the history of urban intelligence, and she writes a column for Places Journal. You can find her at wordsinspace.net.