The Canadian Art Database

James D. Campbell

Intelligent Artifacts: Technics and Praxis in Tom Sherman's Art

C Magazine #26, Summer 1990
[ 2,923 words ]

Machines are artifacts which are conceived of, developed and invented, made by humans. And were we to use a creator-created relationship to describe this genesis of machines, we would clearly identify the god with humanity and the creation with the machine. Yet, when we look at the current situation in which humans increasingly understand themselves to be machine-like or even to be machines, we find that something like an inversion has occurred. The god in this case has taken to interpreting itself through its own imago.

— Don Ihde(1)

Why do so many human beings today believe that they are machines? The question is an interesting one, especially since the impact of comparatively recent and revolutionary technological advances (the microchip, the proliferation of intelligent artifacts, artificial organs, genetic engineering, the introduction of robots in the workplace, and so forth) on our various cultural and life-worlds has instilled this doxa widely and the real consequences of that impact have still not been adequately appraised. While a collective awareness of that impact has been deepening over the last few decades, and despite the seminal theses of McLuhan on the mechanization of the sensorium and Heidegger's suggestion that technology is the true metaphysics of the modern age, there is still a dearth of data on just how we are being affected by the omnipresence of contemporary technics in our culture.

Furthermore, decades after John von Neumann's seminal book, The Computer and the Brain, and our wholesale descent into a time-binding oral culture, we are still handicapped in achieving a hermeneutic understanding of how a machine intelligence relates to the workings of the human brain, and this despite the fact that we live in a time when human beings increasingly define themselves, as Ihde says, as machines. The abyss between artificial intelligence and human intelligence has been too thoroughly bridged, in one sense, and remains as yet unbridgeable, in another.

Certainly, a thematic treatment (as opposed to exploring the relativity of a given function) of contemporary technics in the context of art-making — despite its growing entrenchment, methodologically-speaking — is even rarer. Certainly, few artists as dedicated and resourceful as Tom Sherman have subjected technics to such exacting use and scrutiny as primary instrumentum, successfully laying bare some of the hidden interpretations beneath the literal claim that we are machines or, for that matter, formulating something of a philosophy of technics — however fragmented — within the praxis of his media - based art.

It has been said that Sherman 'writes television.' But actually, he wrote its teleology, that is, he apprehended its underlying logic and tracked the logarithmic curve of its evolutionary integrity. If he has seemed to harness the new technologies effortlessly in his art, this is because the use of television as instrumental facilitation became its meaning in his art. And writing that teleology has now led him to write intelligent artifacts.

But to return for a moment to the question that we first posed — it is clear that this doxa concerning our similitude to machines runs deeper and is far more common than many have supposed. Rather than the machine being perceived as the bare simulacrum of the human being, the reverse has come to be held true as axiomatic of our ordinary experience. While, in its most extreme manifestations, this peculiarly topical psychopathology has received little attention outside the clinical literature on schizophrenic syndrome, it is a phenomenon that permeates both the life-world and the electronic media culture we live in.

Some readers may remember the popular and vaguely vulgar book (or subsequent movie) of the early 1970s called The Terminal Man by Michael Crichton. Its protagonist, one Harry Benson, has been diagnosed as suffering from another surpassingly strange (but not uncommon) neurological disorder known as psychomotor epilepsy. This mental affliction, which can be brought on by heavy drinking, a blow to the head, and various other insults to the brain, is characterized by unusual epileptic seizures. (2)

During the course of these seizures (which like the more common forms of epilepsy are accompanied by total amnesia), otherwise mild-mannered people can be compelled (and the compulsion is apparently impossible to resist) to wound or destroy other human beings, including those they love most. In the novel, the dubious protagonist is fitted out with a tiny computer in the forebrain which forestalls his seizures with direct stimulation of the pleasure-centres before he can become that axe-wielding automaton. Unfortunately, he is also psychotic and believes that the world is being slowly taken over by machine intelligence. After the implant, he believes that he has himself been transformed into something more or less than human (that is, a machine). His brain becomes addicted to the regimen of pleasure-doses and, as a result, his seizures become virtually continuous. He runs amok. Presumably, the author intended his story as a cautionary tale concerning the inadvisability of scientific attempts to mechanize humans, even in the interest of curing this most heinous of all afflictions.

Now, what does all this this have to do with the art of Tom Sherman? One might suggest that Crichton's speculative tale represents one extreme end of the spectrum: the more sensationalistic and paranoid approach to the ubiquity of artificial intelligence and the hegemony of the machine in our electronic media culture, its cultural embeddedness now. Sherman proffers his own narrative from the other end of the spectrum, and it is a very different narrative form, seeking to integrate 'primary devices' such as television, computers and so forth within itself as a new instrumentality of untapped potential and unguessed efficacy. And the narrative is presented in a way that is both ironic and hopeful, at once engaging and ingenuous in its use of both intelligent artifice (technics as praxis) and the intelligent artifacts that are the state-of-the-art representatives of that technics.

In a sense, Sherman uses technics in a way that transcends it as an instrumentality even as it achieves intrinsicality in his art. In contradistinction to the paranoiac sensibility, Sherman may be said to reify a machine intelligence in so far as it can be used as a legitimate sounding-board for sundry ideas, a mnemonic recording device and a therapeutic tool and, most importantly, as a vehicle for realising a genuine aesthetic transformation. In other words, he reifies technics as a hermeneutic tool; he makes it art.

The question of who or what is a robot in Sherman's work is a particularly interesting one, since any answer always seems to devolve down to us, his audience, for deciphering — as opposed to being predetermined in advance and handed down as a ready-made parable — in the process of taking in his pictorial enframing of communication (whether viewing his videos or his elegant aluminium panels with their pictographic schemata of robot-like beings). Like a robot, we enjoy a passive receptivity as we assimilate what Sherman proffers orally or visually through his varied and artificial articulating media. Like a robot, our very optic acts as a recording device, scanning the TV screen or panel for relevant information. Like a robot, we can selectively filter out extraneous material, devolving sight down to the relativity of a given perspective when it suits our purpose to do so. And so on.

Sherman's robots are seemingly benign. They are athome in an enframed medium. They are imbued by him with endearing human and, for that matter, with not-so-endearing inhuman attributes that render them the perfect foil for human ideologies — and a framework for exploring human failings. However, I would maintain that they are not as a result absolved of the very ambiguity that permeates technological progress itself and our multiple attitudes and ambivalences towards it. I do not think that, even for Sherman, the ambiguity in question is seen as a wholly innocuous phenomenon.

But Sherman's belief that the artist should be working on the frontier with intelligent artifacts represents another way of coping, as opposed to merely disclosing, as it were, the Being of the machine. In so doing, he reveals quite a lot about his own propensities and make-up as a human being as well as something of our collective make-up. Indeed, his 'machines' are weaned on and happily cannibalize salient details from his own autobiography. Hence, a certain undifferentiation between man and machine is posited at the same time as an absolute differentiation achieves a strange coherence. The machine becomes one with him and us — and in an odd way, as we shall see — but it is where it remains distinct from us that Sherman's hermeneutics hold sway.

In Jungian psychology, imago refers to an unconscious mental image, usually idealized, of an important person in the early history of the individual. It is difficult to study Sherman's work and not suspect that the machine — the robot — is an imago for him just as it is for us. And that he uses the imago knowingly to further the ends of his art. This idealized image fulfills a host of functions, not least the effective embodiment of and catalyst for sundry psychological processes of projection. This is not particularly surprising since we have long since taken to interpreting ourselves, as a leading philosopher of technology, Don Ihde, notes, through our own brave new imago: the machine.

Sherman has written:

In the Spring of '86 I became interested in making robots. Robots are everywhere these days — in factories, in children's toy chests, under the oceans and in outer space. We must all consider the possibility that someday we will be replaced by a robot in the workplace. Recently I decided to give up my job so I could spend most of my time with a machine. Rather than wait for the inevitable, I've decided to confront the future today. I've traded my desk and occupation for a relationship with the robot of my dreams. (3) [My italics.]

For Sherman, the question that arises when we compare ourselves to machines is the inevitable moral question of whether one's life-form is being depreciated by virtue of being so thoroughly technologically textured; and perhaps its answer is to be read between the lines of his curious 'texts', as Philip Monk once characterized them, rather than made explicit on their surface strata or taken at face-value there.

One can, of course, seek recourse to his published statements and essays, such as the above. When Sherman says that 'rather than wait for the inevitable, I've decided to confront the future today,' he is not being facetious. The relationship with the 'robot of his dreams' signals a fascination that pervades the whole corpus and hints at the usefulness this artist finds not only in the metaphor of the machine and that machine as imago ignotia but in the literal machine itself.

Sherman's visual robots were made in the form of simple pictographs akin to machine drawings. Sherman felt such simple pictographic devices would be potent fields for psychological projection on the part of his viewers, a sort of fill-in-the-blanks framework that would afford the viewer the possibility of 'associative psychological expansion.' Sherman discusses the symbolicity of the pictograms as tending to 'seek meaning in the world' and as 'open to interpretation.' Ostensibly, his concern is thus with generating a symbolicity that is open and subjectively-oriented, but the objectivity of his pictographic language somehow belies this. Or rather, one might suggest (with apologies for the whirligig) that the subjectivity of the objective thing — the machine — is objectified through the objectivity of the subjective thing — the human being — being subjectified.

Yet I should point out that the metaphor of the machine is reified only in so far as it accommodates the human desire for transcendence. And transcendence in Tom Sherman's art is synonymous with interpretation. In urging the viewer to deliver his or her own set of immanent meanings to a machine framework, and in pursuing the analogy between himself and an intelligent machine, Sherman is like the psychologist who describes human behaviour as 'hard-wired' in some form or other. (4)

Still, the artist shifts the onus for constituting this fictional machine intelligence to the viewer, who must then accept responsibility for interpretation. Meaning is herein envisaged as a hermeneutic of technology. The ultimate purpose of the intelligent artifact lies in its use as an instrument to further human self-interpretation. It seems to me a peculiar irony that a reductive dimension of the machine (as when Sherman characterizes the architecture of his robots as 'basically linear and relatively flat') should lead to a non-reductive understanding of the human. (5) I think that this remarkable progress is owing in large part to the ubiquitous presence of the imago in the machine metaphor.

As Ihde has argued: 'Technology and the human are so closely intertwined that to examine one is necessarily to examine the other.'(6) This seems to be Shermans stance. His work is shot through with this intertwining: robot as unconscious mental image, as man's best friend, as ward, peer or superior, as aesthetic tool, as instrumentality towards real aesthetic transformation. His infatuation with robots and the technological embodiment of media has ineluctably led him to explore his own humanity. Emphatically, his are robots with a human face.

In his remarkable video, Exclusive Memory, Sherman radically extends his preoccupation with intelligent artifacts beyond a simply pictographic representation, however open for projection that representation might be, into a sustained reflection on human memory, learning and accommodation.

He says at one point:

I can think of myself as a robot . . . If I have to think of my eyeball as a lens, with some electronics behind it, I'll try to think that way. I'll try to think about what I'll do with the images I collect. The images I collect are all permanent in a certain way. The people around me seem to be obsessed with disposability. I don't think that any of the images are disposable. I think we've fooled ourselves. If I'm a robot, everything I see I'll remember, everything I see I'll record. (7) [My italics]

It is as though he were educating an extraordinarily precocious child, and we are somewhat nonplussed in discovering that the child is, ultimately, us. Sherman persuades us that the robot is a proverbial sponge that can soak up whatever he says, that can indelibly record whatever images he offers it. And it is an artifact that he is moulding and shaping, constantly guiding its intelligence towards fruition. Through relating apparently trivial anecdotes that he hopes will shape its values, that is, humanize it, Shermans long monologue to the machine enlightens even as it adduces the machine metaphor and its imago.

The binary similitude Sherman constantly presupposes between person and robot is, apparently, a lever that allows him — and us — to enjoy the fiction of this omnipotent machine entity as fact. If we note a certain wariness on Sherman's part regarding the precociousness of his charge, as well as a fathers intense interest in the progress of his progeny, it is perhaps because we imaginatively occupy his position; we imaginatively share his role as progenitor. More probably, it is because we realise, unconsciously, that it is we who are being addressed. Specifically, we imaginatively share the space of his robot as son or daughter. More generally, we share the space of contextualised social agents.

Why do so many human beings today think that they are machines? Sherman affords an answer to this question and it is an answer that we might not have consciously raised for ourselves. The revelation MACHINES R US, as they say, is there to be found in Tom Sherman's art as the perfect foil for our own many inadequacies, as an idealized integer of perfection in an otherwise imperfect world.

Sherman reminds us that the eye is a 'camera', of course, one of the foremost similes that allow the doxa in question to flourish unchecked. One can see when this gets started and how far it can and does go. And deepening the analogy is the artists own comport and posture, the unswerving, slightly unnerving gaze, the steady pitch or drone of the voice, the ease with which various things are remembered and conveyed. Then there is the chilling intimacy that develops between the narrator / creator / teacher and the receiver / machine / pupil; the unsettling semblance of a 'father' speaking with a young 'son' or 'daughter'; the unnerving realisation that it is I who am the true target subject, the real surrogate for the intelligent artifact, with all the growing uneasiness that entails. Indeed, the whole performance is not without its sinister overtones: the weird quality of certain anecdotes, the secret intentionalities that sometimes become too explicit, the sci-fi aspects of the scenario. In the shifting of camera perspective, it is almost as though we are overhearing the machine 'thinking.' Of course, those shifts in perspective are a simile for our own proclivity towards amassing as many eidetic variations as possible in the constituting of a thing.

Sherman is positing an interesting aesthetic of reception here. Aesthetic experience itself herein becomes a hermeneutic of technics. Machines have, after all, garnered a rich history of reception. The intertwining of technics and the human is complex and far more extensive than we have heretofore suspected.

If the horizon of our interpretive understanding of Sherman's art is thus an open one, this is because it has been designed to resist closure by the artist himself, who is interested in cultivating a variety of different readings. But standing out in relief against the shadowy ground of those readings in the subjective universe of the doxa is the double-figure of the interpreter and his dopplegänger, his dark twin, his robot-self.

If it is an artificially mediated one, this oblique form of address that at first lulls us into believing that Sherman is really addressing exclusively his robotic invention, this step-child of a sophisticated electronic media culture, it can also be remarkably direct. Perhaps this is because Sherman has apprehended our life-world in its subjective relativity, in its doxic holism. And the ubiquitous machine plays a major role therein. Sherman confronts the ubiquity of the robot in terms of action and givenness. In terms of specific works themselves, the affects seem overwhelmingly real, more so because they are used as a pretext for investing the machine with its values. Sherman as creator invests all his lived-experience into this idealized, mnemonic device that mirrors his own image — and images for us a mirror in so far as we are inclined to project a provisional conception apropos of what the robot might be about (that is, what we might be about).

Don Ihde has argued that:

in much of the artificial intelligence debate and development, one finds even Medieval doctrines of analogy with their systems of analogue / homologue at work. But to conceive of the operations of a machine as 'like' that of a mind in terms of similarities, is to miss what frequently is precisely the most creative and innovative. Were artificial intelligence to merely do faster what we do, it would   unlikely show us anything new. Rather, precisely because it does things differently can it give us new insights into that which we investigate.(8)

While Sherman conceives of how the operations a mind are 'like' that of a machine in certain ways, he does not as a consequence miss what is 'the most creative and innovative.' We are likened to a machine, but Sherman still affords us an understanding that it is through our differences from machines that insights are yielded that provide interesting fodder for further research.

Sherman's preoccupation with technics obviously stems from a deep response to accelerating change. He acknowledges the fact that his own life-form has taken on an armature of technics that has somehow transmuted that life-form itself. In this regard, Don Ihde has argued:

In recent times there has appeared a wider and wider set of activities which involve technologies in Western industrial society — a life form which I shall characterize as technologically textured. So dominant is this embeddedness of human-technology interfacing that from waking (alarm clocks, etc.) to toilet activities (whole systems of water and sewerage) to eating (microwaves) to virtually every activity (including the technology of sex) there is technological involvement. This texture becomes the dominant, familiar and taken-for-granted activity of this 'world' of human inhabitants. Put simply, this technological texture forms one reason for the dominance and recalcitrance of the metaphor of the machine in that our familiar world is simply ordinarily technological.(9)

But Sherman seeks to knowingly exploit, to extend the frontier of this technologically textured life form on the sphere of media and visual art as well as to achieve mastery of it. Of course, it is really self-mastery that is at stake here.

If Sherman seems resigned to the fact that machines will one day displace humans, given the extent of their cultural embeddedness, the truth is that he recognizes his situation as one in which the enframing has already occurred — and on a global scale — and renders it [the robot] the instrument through which the technological perspective can be better adjusted.(10) The unthought doxic backdrop to the whole pre-given life-world — riven with the interwoven traces of human subjectivity and the alien presence of the machine — reflects just how utterly technology has already transformed us.

Now, Sherman proposes to use technology itself to effect another sort of transformation. He forsakes the fiction of human omnipotence. He eschews the scare tactics of the past. His technics is essentially a utopics. Yet it is something of a truism that beneath every Utopia a dystopia is lying in wait. But I don't think that Sherman is unaware of or indifferent to this common truth. Again, Don Ihde has aked:

Does the daily experience of media incline though not determine our experience of others increasingly towards a shaped world which reflects the essential possibilities of media? In other words, does the near-distance which is essential to the experience of media; does the possibility of the disjunction in space-time; does the very concept of 'role' now analagous to dramatic play incline us towards a particular form of social life?(11)

I think Sherman asks the same question that Ihde does, albeit in a different way. And it is a question that is a once important and pressing here and now. Our inextricable technological entwinement with the media; the way they have insinuated themselves into our varied forms of life, influenced the way we live in the world and determined the concept of role, have these not directed us towards one form of social (even moral and political) life? Perhaps it is still too early to answer the question with finality. But Sherman accepts the fact that we are being shaped. He wants, however, to be in control of that process. He wants to understand. This is the underlying motivation for his hermeneutic of technics and his obsession with intelligent artifacts.

In an important essay, entitled 'Primary Devices,' the artist shows that he is aware of the challenges posed by new technology:

The artist must be concerned about the accessibility of specific machines, the primary devices of his or her profession. The artist must also be able to cope with the politics which come with the territory of these communication technologies. The politics in the traditional art milieu are fairly straight forward and easy to understand. Reactions to art based on these new technologies will range from indifference to paranoia, which may resist in active attempts to oppress such machine-focused activity. (12)

Sherman realistically assesses the potentially reactionary response to the new technologies in art. Yet perhaps he is being overcautious, because his robots are not just innocuous, hopeful things, heralding a brave, new and better world, but reflexive tools we can use in questioning how like and unlike we are to the machines that are slowly taking over our lived-world. They enjoin us to meet with alacrity the challenges posed by accelerating change. In so doing, we can perhaps come to terms with the hegemony of the machine.

One could finally conclude that Sherman is generating a potent philosophical space out of technics in general and robotics in particular, and one with real moral and cultural resonance, within the parameters of his chosen art. For his conversations with his robot and his robot pictures are really at base about the deconstruction of an epistemological subject. The metaphor of the machine allows for its dismantling, and the presence of the imago demonstrates the necessity for that dismantling.

The very ideality lent the machine casts a deconstructive light on the epistemological model and the meaning of man. Sherman places full emphasis on communication and technics as ongoing praxis. The artist fully recovers the human component in technics through communication and action. The robot provides this artist with a new aperture on the human. It is one that opens onto a communicative praxis that affords us an interesting framework for distinguishing man from his machines. This is one praxis that no intelligent artifact can ever duplicate; that no machine can ever subsume. If the texture of our lived-through world experience has become increasingly dehumanized by new technologies, Sherman's expressive performances secure whatever is left of the subject — that is, what is quintessentially human — after its methodological displacement has taken place. This displacing of the Cartesian thinking subject in a technological context is thus restorative, because a hermeneutical space is being generated in which communication itself is pre-eminent as ongoing artistic practice.

So, if Tom Sherman's robots are readily interpretable as a pure expression of our cultural climate — whether its alienating ambience, our incessant (and perhaps ultimately losing) struggle to keep pace with accelerating change, or the technological texture of our existence now — they are just as interpretable as an important praxis, impelled by the meaning of truth and the pursuit of a valid hermeneutic of communication and technics. In positing a statement concerning the state of technology and its potential to transform what we are and how we perceive ourselves, Sherman's art takes on interesting social and ontological dimensions.

In respect of the so-called 'loss of the world' — the fact that humans are imprisoned in the world so-long as they remain caught up in their own prejudices — this artist forces us to confront our unexamined doxa. A world well lost thus becomes a world recovered just as well through speech, action and self-questioning. Are we really so much like our machines? How are we alike and how do we differ? What is the quintessentially human and what is the intelligent artifact? In the end, Tom Sherman's robots are perhaps best understood as a dark paradigm of the moral life.

C Magazine #26, Summer 1990

Text: © James D. Campbell. All rights reserved.

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