In the film Computations, by Maxim Zhestkov, black, identical globules undulate in unison, smoothly draping over organic and geometric shapes. The interstices luminesce in white and blueish light. The ocean of particles appears energised from within, rippling unpredictably, yet constrained within defined spaces. ‘Symmetry. Vertical. Lift. Relief. Mountains. Horizons’: The film’s intertitles indicate abstractions, which become orientations, become formations, become landscapes – a simulacrum of a rocky landscape or rather of an ocean? Computations (2019) is a key reference work for the exhibition ‘Simulation Hypothesis’, in which datapoints interconnect and come into being. Zhestkov not only seeks inspiration in informatics, but in the worlds of biology, geology, and physics. The film speculates about a future in which computational systems are pervasive. To fathom this future, however, we might ask how the simulated forms of Zhestkov’s computational and creative universe relate to the weird ways of our own universe?
Take the peacock spider. Peacock spiders are famed for the colourful flamboyance of the males. They know how to strike a pose. The tiny spider is about the size of a grain of rice and has elaborate courtship behaviour. Their dance of seduction involves sending out vibrations and displaying their colourful bodies. Their colour patterns have been likened to The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh. In some you can detect a resemblance to pre-historic script, particularly the one taxonomically referred to as Maratus noggerup (genus: Maratus; noggerup referring to the species’ usual location in Western Australia). This peacock spider was scientifically described by arachnologist Joseph Schubert only in 2020, along with 12 new peacock-spider species, and published in the journal Zootaxa. Some of the species described in that paper were discovered by citizen scientists who took images and documented the localities. The total number of known peacock-spider species that live in Australia and the South Pacific is now 85. The discovery of the new species is a tale of scale – the spider’s minute size, the number of variations of spider, its geographical distribution – and the agency of the many that contributed to the observation and recording of this facet of the natural world. The project is exemplary for its continued curiosity into the refined details of the life forms that have been brought about through evolution. Abstracting evolutionary principles is useful and beautiful, yet the ingenuity of nature remains humbling.
Where does life come from? For the past few billion years on Earth, life forms have emerged, have gone extinct, and others have developed. First unicellular organisms, then more and more complex organisms have evolved into animals and plants. Did life originate in the oceans? Did it come from a meteorite that landed on Earth? Where else in the universe is there water that would make life, as we know it, possible? Some 4.5 billion years ago the Earth formed. A history of planetary cooling and warming, of synthesis and transformation followed. Life-enabling conditions emerged, as did the buildings blocks of life: carbon, hydrogen, sulphur, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus. With the addition of energy, organic molecules formed sugars and amino acids. Then, with the aid of minerals, nucleic acids, proteins, and lipids emerged. Marine organisms mutated, recombined, and reproduced and thus also brought about life forms fit to live on land, such as the small, jumping peacock spider. Over the millennia, millions of experiments took place in the laboratory of nature. Genetic signatures, if you can read them, help to interpret and to plot in reverse the development of life in relation to the minerals that were present in the ocean bed, the gases available in the atmosphere.
Geologists manage the Earth’s history by dividing it, from about 4.6 billion years ago, into geological time periods represented by and recorded in its rock strata. Geological history is described in varying time periods of eons, eras, periods, epochs, ages, relating to the fossil record and the appearance and disappearance of species. It is also a history of climatic fluctuations, tectonic plate movements, changes in ocean currents, and of meteorological events. Much is known, yet unresolved questions remain. What is our universe made of? Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, an energetic echo of the Big Bang, strongly suggests the presence, in the Universe, of dark matter. This dark matter, whose presence is inferred rather than observed, exerts gravitational pull and, therefore, is an invisible sculptor of space-time at unimaginably vast scale. How, then, to represent human history, in the context of this vastness? The evolution of life on planet Earth stretches over about 3.8 billion years, an evolution in which humans participate — late in this history — as a species. These mega-histories are huge in scale, produced through slow processes operating at various speeds over various time frames. We know about them cognitively and intellectually, and we can create metaphors of various kinds to develop affect about them, as historian Dipesh Chakrabarty suggests. Maxim Zhestkov brings new metaphors into view.
The works designed and produced by Maxim Zhestkov and his studio are creations to make these histories available to us. Human capacity to experience space and time is limited; deep-time histories posit conceptual timescales that cannot be directly and individually experienced, though humans as a species clearly start to participate in the history of biological life. In the realm of culture, Zhestkov pursues the question of the nature of the universe and its contemporary affect. Instilled with and indeed enabled by energy, his aesthetic language, aesthetics, and materials differ from the ways of the universe as we know it. The slowly moving forms of ‘Simulation Hypothesis’ are immutable and interchangeable. Their agglomeration seems to be governed from within, a hallucinatory system of identical forms, a hypothesis still to be formulated. In the 1961 science fiction novel Solaris by Polish writer Stanisław Lem, cosmonaut-scientists try to make contact with a sentient ocean on a supposed planet, an alien intelligence. The ocean’s presence induces hallucinations and memories in its observers. Is Zhestkov’s slow-moving ocean a form of consciousness?
Zhestkov equally seeks inspiration in pre-historic cultures of cave art and ancient bas-reliefs. He plays with a visuality that precedes written language, from a time in which early humans used clay to make vessels and figurines. This was a time, perhaps, in which, without much difficulty, humans as individuals and as a collective, moulded materials from the earth with their hands. Their fingers would have left marks in these transformations from the unformed to the formed. Zhestkov’s tools, however, are those of programming and software, deployed to mould these mysterious simulations, in which scale and time are left unaccounted. In his laboratory of the future, the conceptual vocabulary contains adaptation, plasticity, and successful mistakes. In dialogue with machines and algorithms, the artist works with the functions of Artificial Intelligence. An AI, at least as popularly embodied by the technologies known as Deep Learning and Large Language Models, captures intricate high-order statistical relations from its exposure to mammoth data sets. Its fundamental mode is that of pattern recognition. Hugely complex though these captured patterns might be, AI (arguably) does not have a human-like concept of the relationships it models. A Large Language Model is not thought to have an internal model of the world, of people, places, things and how these interact causally. The predictive model that it does have, is instantiated as billions of numbers, the very distributed nature of which makes the AI’s internal representations notoriously difficult to interpret. Just as a chess computer can play chess, and an aeroplane can fly, an AI accomplishes its goals admirably, but in a manner thought to be different from that of its natural inspiration. But how different? We do not yet know what the limits of AI are. For the time-being, it is left to the artist to play and to make manifest its possibilities. In doing so, Zhestkov, like the natural inspiration he finds in evolution by natural selection, relishes exploiting the errors his processes introduce. Beautiful errors indeed.