1. ‘Schoenberg's ELIZA (The impossibility of being taken seriously)’, Fifi Amherst Brinn (USA) 2020. Metal capsule suspended in a glass tank, step-ladder, touch screens and computer. Dimensions approx. 200 x 260 x 180 cm. Gallery: Tate Market Harborough.


It should be remembered that just as the late Joseph Weizenbaum's 'AI' program ‘ELIZA’ was an attempt to refute the idea that a relatively simple set of algorithms could mimic a human psychotherapist, Schoenberg's Cat was actually an attempt by the notorious composer/theoretical physicist to refute the possibility of up-scaling from a quantum level 12-tone scale to the symphonic majesty of a living being, the eponymous cat.

Both attempts were doomed to failure, Weizenbaum’s secretary, who was fully conversant with the project, still refusing to believe, when she tested it, that the ‘therapist’ was a computer and not a real person (“No computer could understand me that well…”). And the Cat, apparently both dead and alive, having been poisoned, or not, by a file of cyanide triggered by the emission, or not, of a fairly elementary particle in a box, always emerged before the thought-experiment's end, enraged by its confinement, screeching and what Italians call “giving numbers”, in this case 1 to 12, which did however famously inspire the scientist in his hobby of musical composition.

This artwork, referring indirectly to these ‘failures’, and of course to the work of the oBa (Old British Artist) Damien Hirst, uses the idea of ‘entankment’, applied to a cylinder containing living coronavirus. The term entankment, though rare, is not a mere artist’s invention (see US-7, Bennington to Manchester: Environmental Impact Statement,1970). When Hirst entanks a lamb, we see the poor creature as imprisoned. The shark perhaps less so, the cow more as a specimen. Yet in a sense the trio are protected, 'safe' although dead. Knowing - or merely believing? - the epistemology is ambiguous - that the cylinder contains a potentially deadly virus, we experience various emotions. These might include fear, awe, disgust or reverse chrysalism (not “there is a storm outside but I am safe here indoors”, rather “there is a virus in the tank but I am safe outside”). Yet the title, “Schoenberg's ELIZA”, leads us elsewhere, hand in hand with Pygmalion. And we remember that this latter was a sculptor.

If we think about that, and we certainly do in front of this work, aided by the piece’s subtitle “The impossibility of being taken seriously”, we swiftly become trapped - entanked? - in a maze of uncertainty. Should we, as the TV game-show audience used to shout, OPEN THE BOX? Even conceptually? To do so, we have to enter the tank. Look, there is a stepladder left, apparently carelessly, against the side of a tank, though there is a chain across it and a forbidding notice from the gallery. Do we not feel manipulated, if we nod, smile, admire, but do nothing? Is the artist playing with us? The immense price-tag might suggest so.

The fact that several touch screens allow us to interact with the virus by (allegedly) changing the conditions in the cylinder/box in the tank/cocoon, even to the extent that we can aid it or kill it via an AI whose function is never explained, puts us in a quasi-therapeutic situation. But who is the therapist, who the client, in any art?

There is another strangely named but commonly felt emotion: Lachesism. It is the desire to come to harm - to jump from a high tower, to touch a live wire or leap onto a swirling river - to introduce a 'defect' into the metallic, crystalline structure of your life, which paradoxically hardens it by inhibiting a crack's progress. The more chaos, tangles, misalignment, irregularity, uncertainty, the less events can slice through you like a knife through butter. We want to open the box, to climb the ladder, to touch the chain, to think of, to imagine, doing so.

No one has yet killed the virus (or the artist was cheating us, and there is no virus there, the touch screens doing nothing but providing us with fake feedback from a mangled version of ELIZA which at the slightest provocation spews paragraphs of art-talk).

Yet “all men kill the thing they love…”

Are you an art lover?


©2020 by Brian Reffin Smith