The Not-So-New Alphabet

Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin has started the last chapter of the broad-reaching trilogy that started with The Anthropocene Project in 2013. This time, it is all about the alphabet.

Alexander Kluge, Wenn ich Roboter wär… (with Helge Schneider), 2018. Photo: Kairos Film.

Seven years ago, Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin housed the opening of what over the next nine years has become a trilogy. With an excellent feeling for the zeitgeist and its thinkers, The Anthropocene Project set the tone for a discourse that would soon make itself visible in fields outside of the arts. The names we heard for the first time during the opening days in 2013 are people who now have become regulars at exhibitions and conferences across many fields. The term ‘anthropocene’ no longer needs explanation. The weekend of January 10–13 inaugurated the last part of the trilogy, Das Neue Alphabet (The New Alphabet). The name can be abbreviated to DNA, a familiar acronym for the genetic alphabet. Alphabet is also the name of the parent company now running Google. It is precisely the alphabet, in all its various iterations – the historical alphabet, the genetic alphabet, and, maybe most relevant to our time, the alphabet of machines – that is the topic of the three-year chapter to come.

The opening was organized in what has become HKWs trademark style: A marathon of presentations with presenters from a wide array of fields. Artists, academics, scientists, and dancers were just a few of the participants. Some had been part of the trilogy from the start, but most were new. The program did not just consist of lectures, but also concerts, performances, poetry, and music, as well as an exhibition spread throughout the building, arranged in what HKW has chosen to call seven “islands.” Given the subject of the project, the language seemed carefully thought out, and there was a studious attempt to avoid what Olga von Schubert, the co-curator of the project, on several occasions called “globish.” Many lectures were in German, with simultaneous translations to English. Finally, we had visual and musical languages, that are not normally sorted geographically.

From the opening days of the three-year project Das Neue Alphabet (The New Alphabet) at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. Photo: Stepahnie Pilick.

Wry observations

The majority of the audience did not arrive until the filmmaker and writer Alexander Kluge took the stage together with Helge Schneider, one of Germany’s most famous musical comedians. People were already chuckling as they presented themselves. Schneider’s absurdist style is well-known, even if the material for the opening days was new. It was more surprising that the seemingly simple jokes we laughed at, where Schneider played the roles of robots and bookworms, would end up as some of the sharpest and most intelligent contributions during the weekend.

Fearing that most of the comedic timing will be lost, I will try to give a short description of a scene from the film Ich bin eine Leseratte (I am a Bookworm), that the duo played out live on stage:

Schneider’s character is sitting by a piano in a dimly lit room made up to look like a rat. As he takes off his mask, you can read the character’s name on the screen, and under the name, his title: Leseratte. We hear Kluge’s voice, as he starts interviewing him. Slowly, accompanied by laughter from the audience, the bookworm is asked what he reads. The books at the state library, he answers. The telephone book. The sign with his own name, next to the door of the apartment where he lives.

“Do you also read other peoples eyes?”, asks Kluge.

“Yes. I also read other peoples eyes.”

The questions were simple, but good. Because what do we actually read? Do we, in a machine-like way read all the signs we see during a day? And do machines read the way we do, when we type a word into a search engine? Do machines read the books that have been read by committees and chosen to be part of the state library? Do they read the phone book? And last, but not least, do they read our eyes, as they move across the screen?

With the binary system from 1697, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz could represent all numbers with the help of only two digits – zero and one. This was to become the alphabet of machines. Courtesy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Library – Niedersachsen State Library, Hannover.

Inadequate alphabets

The topic Kluge and Schneider introduced was not discussed further until the last day, when the artist Hito Steyerl, a recurring figure on the art scene whenever media is discussed, shared a stage with Luc Steels, one of today’s leading researchers on artificial intelligence. Steels had been invited by Armin Linke and Giulia Bruno, two artists who have spent the last twenty years documenting his research. The panel was a strange assembly, and this did not work in the favor of any of its panelists. Steyerl started by showing a film that explained how difficult it is for a machine to recognize the sound of a window being brokenAs easy as this might sound, detecting this audio signature reliably is something today’s technology is still unable to do. Using this simple problem as a springboard, Steyerl drew a parallel between how people in earlier times believed in angels, and today’s belief in artificial intelligence. Referring to the philosophical question (of interest to Thomas Acquinas, among others), “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” she asked: “How many A.I’s can dance on the head of a pin?” Remarkably, she used logic to find an answer. Steyerl’s presentation was mesmerizing. When, right afterwards, Steels presented human-like robots grabbing mirrors with their clumsy robot-hands, looking at themselves through camera-eyes, his experiments seemed naïve. The naiveté was enhanced by his wish to give the robots free time, an otherwise interesting proposal. Nor did it help that Steels was interrupted in the middle of his planned presentation when the artists who had invited him wanted to show videos of the robots. The robots were cute, but the audience was deprived of further insight into the possibilities and limitations of robotic expressions encoded with a binary alphabet.

Slavs and Tatars, The Three Tongues You Speak in Your Sleep, 2019. From the opening days of the three-year project Das Neue Alphabet. Photo: Aya Schamoni.

The short conversation between the mathematician and epistemologist Giuseppe Longo and Steels was also interrupted during another Q & A, on Saturday. The previous day, Longo had challenged the perception that human genetic material, DNA, works like an alphabet where one can exchange one sign with another. This model of thought, often used to describe genetic engineering, creates cancer, rather than cures it, he argued. He illustrated his argument by describing how long it took scientists to understand the relationship between asbestos and cancer. Asbestos acts by gradually causing changes in the DNA, but it often takes as long as ten to eighty years before cancer appears. The fact that the first change in the genetic material does not lead to cancer does not mean that later mutations resulting from the first change will not be harmful. The complexity of biological material is beyond measure. It would have been interesting to hear Steels answer when Longo challenged him using a similar argument concerning the limitations of digital codes.

The opening days of Das Neue Alphabet had an impressive list of participants. And some of the presentations were very good. Trevor Paglen and Kate Crawford were convincing when presenting the political implications of big data, both on societal and individual levels. The same can be said of Slavs and Tatars’s presentation the day before, which focused on changes to the Turkic languages in the former Soviet Union. But we have seen all of them before – several times. To compare these opening days with the inaugural days of The Antropocene Project seven years ago may seem unfair, but it is hard to resist. Thanks to the fact that we have indeed entered the anthropocene epoch, the first chapter of the program laid a strong foundation for the need of a new alphabet, one that can help us survive on a wounded planet. This alphabet might already be in use, or it might be yet to come. But if we are going to discuss this new alphabet, we need to do it in a more radical and thorough way, than what was done this time around at HKW.