Memo Akten is an explorer of worlds that don’t yet exist. To remedy this, he programs them into being, the way a sorcerer-child might conjure imaginary worlds. Akten began writing code at age 10, and his works resonate with the kind of joyous exploration of phenomena children do, multiplied, mutated and continued over the course of now 30 years of writing software.

His interdisciplinary work, which spans video, immersive installation, dance, music videos, apps and much more, appears sentient and always in relation to—be it touch, moving bodies, data, or Google’s trippy Deep Dream generator, infinitely more psychedelic, dark and self-reflective in Akten’s hands.

Like a lucid dream, Akten’s work moves through the often one-way glass of things like artificial intelligence, surveillance, drones, and even contemporary dance. His work also asks profound questions about power and the nature of the technology we live, breathe, speak with, and are watched over by. And yet, Akten self-identifies as “an old-fashioned artist. I paint landscapes… and scenes of the divine,” drawing from deep philosophical understandings of what technology—and poetry—really means, and how artists have always used it.

With his technical intellect and craft—and his expansive curiosity—it’s no wonder that Memo is one of our favorite artists at Kadenze. We were privileged to speak with Memo via email in his home in East London.

Memo Akten photo

Memo Akten (Photo credit: Jane Laurie)

As an artist, what first drew you to coding? Why is it your medium of choice?

I was very fortunate that my parents bought a BBC Micro Model B when I was 10 years old, and a PC (8088xt) shortly after. I started coding pretty much straight away (first BASIC, then Pascal, then C++ and x86 assembly). So I was coding before I knew much about art. Prior to that, the medium that I spent most of my time in, and used to creatively express myself, was Lego technics. It was a natural progression to go from Lego to coding, driven by the same motivation: to create things which didn’t yet exist, but I wished they did.

I’ve been writing software for about 30 years now. There’s many reasons as to why I do it. I’m very comfortable with it, that helps. But ultimately I like being able to speak to and control machines. I see it as a language that allows me to transform things from one state to another. This transformation can be purely virtual, if the output remains in the digital world, or it can bleed into the physical world, when controlling robotics or other computer controlled devices. One of the things I enjoy the most when working with computational systems, is that they allow very fine control over behaviour—and that’s what interests me the most. The medium that I really work in, and sculpt in, isn’t visual or sonic, it’s behaviour. How things change with time, how they respond to input, how they respond to one another. Just how they behave.

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Memo Akten, Body Paint, 2009

There are such cosmic, energetic, psychedelic dimensions to much of your work. Where does this come from?

Thanks! Not sure exactly where it comes from. As a kid my two biggest influences—at an almost obsessive level—were Carl Sagan and Jacques Cousteau. Both explorers of the unknown. Explorers, but also excellent communicators, ambassadors for investigating the mysterious on the quest for truth. I’ve always had a fascination with the unknown, and a passion for exploration and discovery. To quote Richard Feynman:“In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar” (my wife actually used this quote in her wedding speech!). This is probably quite a common quality that drives people to be either scientists, or artists. Or perhaps even evangelical preachers! Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson speculates about comparing the neurons that fire in his brain when he thinks about the fact that his body is made from atoms that were forged in a supernova from another galaxy, to the neurons that fire in the brain of an evangelical preacher when talking about their savior; and that perhaps they are the same neurons that fire. We’re all fascinated by these big questions and the unknown. But we respond differently. Some of us are uncomfortable, even scared of the unknown and need an absolute truth, even if fictional. Others thrive in this unknown, revel in the mystery and the quest to explore. Perhaps the psychedelic aspect is also related to that: it’s an exploration of the unknown depths of one’s own mind. Ultimately it boils down to trying to explore, discover and understand greater truths about the world, the universe, and ourselves.

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Memo Akten | All watched over by machines of loving grace, 2015.

Eyes! Eyes figure prominently in your work. Talk to us about eyes.

Yes, I’ve noticed that about the eyes too. It’s definitely not only related to ‘being watched’ (i.e. by a higher power, whether a deity or ‘big brother’), though that is also relevant. But I think my main interest with eyes is that they are the ‘window into the soul’. I don’t believe in a ‘supernatural’ soul or spirit, especially in the traditional religious or Cartesian dualist sense. But there is a feeling of ‘I’ and it feels like that ‘I’ is sitting in my head, looking out into the world through my eyes. Even when I close my eyes and walk around, move my body, feeling the acceleration forces on my limbs, it still feels like the ‘I’ is in my head. I’ve read that those who are totally blind still feel their consciousness in their heads, in fact even those who are totally blind and deaf.  Of course millions of words have been written about this feeling of our own consciousness. And for those who rely heavily on vision, the eyes are the primary point of contact. When we look at other living beings, whether human or animal, we look at their eyes to acknowledge their presence, or communicate with them. Even most other animals, especially mammals and birds, make eye contact to communicate. So it’s an innately natural experience. Also, I’ve been fortunate enough to make eye contact at close range with a few wild animals such as orcas, hammerhead sharks, Kea’s and lemurs, and it is an incredible feeling, having a wild animal acknowledge your presence. This is perhaps what was so successful about HAL in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The antagonist was undoubtedly an eye, albeit a cold, unreadable one. I think it boils down to that, the acknowledgement of an intelligent, thinking, sentient being, and them acknowledging your presence.

You often refer to poetry, for instance, what you call ‘algorithmic poetry.’ What’s your definition of poetry?

I mention poetry when the artefact communicates more than the sum of its parts; its meaning transcends its content. It allows a connection to the subject matter on many different layers, metaphors intertwined on many levels.

E.g. “The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew, the furrow followed free” (“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, Samuel Taylor Coleridge), communicates so much more than “the wind was strong and firm, the ship’s sails caught the wind and it sailed” etc. It paints a picture, in fewer words. Even in the rhythm, the flow, the alliteration, it makes you feel what’s happening in the scene.

So when I mention ‘algorithmic poetry’, I don’t mean ‘poetry generated by algorithms’ (which it could also mean). I don’t even mean ‘poetic, pretty images generated by algorithms’. But I do mean ‘poetry in the algorithm’, and how it relates to the subject matter.

By the way, not only am I not a poet, I’m not particularly a literature buff either, so this may be inaccurate, but that’s how I interpret the notion of ‘poetry’ and ‘poetic’.

[Akten has however written some pretty great poetry in collaboration with the Google search engine.]

A lot of your work deals with what you call ‘digital deities’, pointing out ways in which our relationship to the cloud is not all that different to relationships people have had with higher powers for a very long time… Could you explain this concept?

I’ve written and spoken a lot about this; I’ll try to be concise. There are a few parallels which I find interesting, and of course many differences. The basic premise is that religions and the deities that we believe in—and have believed in in the past—have evolved and changed with time, and interestingly, they often suit the societies in which they thrive. I won’t be the first person to suggest that religions evolved to impose systems of control onto the masses. As populations grew and societies became more non-egalitarian, with agriculture, trade, classes etc. becoming more established; religions also became more moral, active, wrathful and controlling. There are exceptions of course, but generally this is the trend and there are many studies confirming these correlations. So we’ve had various kinds of Overseers in the past, which could see everything we do or think, reward the good, and punish the bad. In the past, these were fictional Overseers, invented (or evolved) by those in power, to impose control on us. So the landowners could be sure that their workers would work their land, and be afraid of committing crimes etc. Over the centuries, and especially decades, as we lose our spiritual sensibilities, the power of these fictional, spiritual Overseers has weakened, to the point of becoming obsolete. So we need new Overseers to watch over us and ‘protect’ us, to punish the ‘evil’ and keep the law-abiding safe. And we are a materialist society. We now speak, think, dream in digital. So it’s apt that our new Overseer is also a material overseer, a digital one. The fact that the new Overseer lives in ‘The Cloud’ is just icing on this proverbial cake.

But the purpose of these historical Overseers wasn’t only for control and surveillance. They were also providers of hope, optimism and knowledge. People pray to them, make wishes, confess their desires etc. It was a way that people used to connect to ‘the universe’, spiritually. Now we use ‘The Cloud’ for similar purposes. We use The Cloud to connect to our ‘universe’. Also, if we have a rash in an awkward place, we ask Google before we tell anyone else about it. We confess our deepest, darkest secrets to The Cloud, more than we do to our friends or family. It is the Keeper of Our Collective Consciousness.

Of course there are many differences between the old fictional Overseers and the current digital ones. The old Overseers came with myths and stories about how they created the universe, and how they keep everything in the universe running smoothly. I think that’s where this metaphor diverges a bit. Those were stories made up to justify the existence of the Overseer, and to sway people into accepting them. We do have modern day equivalents for our digital Overseers—it’s not myths regarding the creation of the universe, but myths regarding our security, well-being, convenience, freedom etc.

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Memo Akten and Quayola, Forms, 2012

You work a lot with the idea that complex behavior can emerge from simple rules, noting it’s also “how physics works, evolution works, the universe works, learning and understanding works.” Practically speaking, how do you apply this concept in your creative process?

This is quite a well explored area. Perhaps most famously illustrated by John Conway’s ‘Game of Life’.  It’s a cellular automaton with four very simple rules, yet it exhibits very complex behaviour. And most interestingly, it exhibits higher level structure,i.e. there are rules that emerge which govern the behaviour of higher level structures and patterns. There is a ton of literature and research dedicated to understanding these higher level patterns and rules.

In a way, that’s similar to scientists trying to understand our world. Physicists try to model the behaviour of what they observe at the low levels: particles, quarks, waves, light, gravity etc. Higher level physicists—or chemists—try to understand the behaviour of atoms, molecules, materials etc. Going higher level still, biologists try to understand very specific, very complex molecules that exhibit a behaviour we call life. Going higher level still neuroscientists try to understand the behaviour of a collection of very high level biological structures we call the brain/neurons. At an even higher level, psychologists try to understand the behaviour that comes out of these structures we call the mind and their interaction with the environment. Higher still you’ve got sociologists, anthropologists, economists etc. trying to understand the behavior when many of these minds interact together. The boundaries between each of these disciplines are quite blurred, as the behaviour at each level could be explained based on observed behaviour from the preceding level(s), OR with new, simpler rules that abstract away any lower levels and only take into consideration the current level.

In my work, the practical applications are far simpler. I start by defining a set of rules and then I play. I look for glimpses of higher level order, patterns or structures. If I see the faintest hints of such a thing, I try to understand what it is and why it’s happening; I then tweak the lower level rules to maximize these higher level structures. And I keep iterating this process. This could be likened to evolving the rules via Darwinian evolution by natural selection, where I am nature, deciding which rules to dump and which rules to keep, and modify. But that would be inaccurate, because I don’t randomly modify the lower level rules. Instead I try to identify what aspects of the lower level rules affect the higher level behavior and why, and then I try to modify the lower level rules in the direction that maximizes the desired higher level behavior. This can actually be likened to gradient descent and backpropagation: I try to maximize the similarity between the observable behaviour of the system and the behaviour of the system in my head (i.e. I want to minimize the difference between the two). I then try to understand how this difference relates to the rules and parameters of the system, and I then tweak each rule/parameter in the direction that I think will maximize the impact (minimize the difference).

You’ve recently collaborated with choreographer Alexander Whitley to create intelligent, motion-responsive digital environments for Pattern Recognition (2016), and The Measures Taken (2014). What were you exploring? What interests you about working with dancers and/or what have you learned working with them?

I’ve been working with dancers for quite a few years, almost a decade. My initial interest in visual arts was in audio visual composition, moving image and sound. I found the ‘traditional’ form of creating computer generated moving images (i.e. via computer animation software) very cumbersome. Placing key-frames and working in a very ‘non-realtime’ manner is the exact opposite of improvising and playing live music, which is a feeling I really love and have spoken about a lot in the past. So I started working with dancers as a way to explore an alternative. I design interactive systems which take body movement as an input, i.e. it becomes a visual instrument. And we use the body and its movements to ‘play’ this instrument and generate moving images in realtime. I design the look, feel, behavior of the images through code, and this part is very non-realtime. It might take months for me to develop the system. But then the final output—the timings, directions, moods, and changes of moods—is performed live, in realtime, played like an instrument.

The specific projects you mention, ‘The Measures Taken’ and ‘Pattern Recognition’, also had specific motivations behind them. ‘The Measures Taken’ is an exploration of our relationship with technology. Not specifically taking a techno-utopian or Luddite angle, but more exploring the various journeys that we go through. The power struggles between us vs technology, how control shifts back and forth between us, very much in line with the McLuhan-ite “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us” (actually coined by John Culkin not Marshall McLuhan). And the piece itself is quite heavy with technology, with 8x Kinects and 4x computers on stage. ‘Pattern Recognition’ builds on that and focuses on artificial intelligence, machine learning as well as human learning, memory and the relationships between the two, how one informs the other. The piece is also heavily driven by machine learning and artificial intelligence.

You’ve noted, “We could say that if World War I gave us — at least accelerated the development of — analog computers, World War II gave us digital computers, the Cold War gave us the Internet; the current alleged War on Terror and Mass Surveillance is giving us artificial intelligence.” Why do technologies arise out of violence? What is the link?

I think it’s no secret that the link is funding. Military—or ‘defense’ as it’s been cleverly branded in many countries—is one of the biggest funders of technological research. The R&D budget for the US Dept. of Defense is more than double the R&D budget of all other US federal departments combined (NASA, NSF, HHS, Energy etc). It’s tragic that this has become the norm and we accept it as is, assuming this is how it must be. Ursula Franklin is quick to point out that Japan, who does not have a strong military presence or strategy, is a major scientific and technological player, so they’ve managed to find a different route. Still, I don’t think business or commercialism should be the driving force behind scientific or technological developments either. I think it might be too late and too difficult to change this now unfortunately, but perhaps in an alternative world it might have been possible to divorce scientific and technological progress from military spending.

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Memo Akten, Simple Harmonic Motion for 16 Percussionists, 2015. Photo by Manox Media