THE RELAY OF AIRFLOWS
— Notes on Our Air, or Notes on “Our Air”
Short Essay
Inlcuded in “Espaço/Programa” catalogue. Brief notes on the installation “Our Air” (2022) [︎︎︎]. Edited by Miguel Carvalhais and Luís Pinto Nunes
pp. 77 — 81
ISBN 978-989-98515-7-3
2022

When Wolfgang von Kempelen toured Europe in the 1780s to showcase his Mechanical Turk, the exhibit involved an opening act which, due to its narrative sequencing, can arguably be read as a pivotal episode to draft out some of the entanglements celebrated between voice, thought and computational — or artificialization — technologies.

Both as an apparatus and a falsehood, Kempelen’s Turk stands as a common ground zero to yield epistemological inquiries on the contours and reverberations of automatons and artificialization technologies in the construction of a certain notion of thought. The tale of an 18th century headlining and world-touring fully autonomous and automated mechanical chess player capable of winning matches against human players that, decades later, turned out to be a hoax — in fact, the whole mechanism was operated by exceptionally skilled players hidden inside The Turk’s black box, right under the machine’s human-like puppet  — is a more than fitting embodiment of the Cartesian theatre and its cyclic redundancy; a model for Turing’s Imitation Game (argument), while also serving as a model of Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment (counter-argument). However, for the sake of our brief sketch, its imperative to frame the Mechanical Turk as part of an exhibition, a component of a public display articulated according to a curatorial (discoursive) plan which, in turn, following Mladen Dolar’s proposal on A Voice and Nothing More, outlines a causal structure (X ⊃Y) where The Turk (Y) is presented as the material effect of a preceding cause (X), thus providing us with a conception of thought.

The tour that showcased the Mechanical Turk was designed as a two part show where the main attraction/act (Y) was preceded by Die Sprechmaschine (The Speaking Machine) — our X — a vocal synthesizer also built by Kempelen, which he began to develop in the year of The Turk’s completion in 1769. The Speaking Machine was an ingenious device that presented an operational model of the human vocal tract capable of mimicking the human voice — mainly vowels and fricatives — through the manual manipulation of airflows through a linear system composed by a bellows, a windchest, a reed pipe, a rubber funnel and brass pipes.

Unlike The Turk, The Speaking Machine’s black box was open, its intricacies and organs exposed and accessible to exploration; visitors could play (with) the machine, learn how to make it speak — The Speaking Machine was, in a didactical sense, an instrument of intelligibility. Kempelen’s scientific achievement, still celebrated today, literally laid out a techno-logical diagram for the human voice, a diagram whose individual components — much like the nodes/neurons in contemporary machine learning architectures — were responsible for the most mundane and next-to-nothing functions — the mere shaping of air.

Following the show plan, one would first be confronted with the haptic and didactical availability of the airflows exposed by The Speaking Machine (X), and then with the black-boxed mechanical thoughts (chess moves) of the anthropomorphic Mechanical Turk (Y). From the coupling of these apparatuses and, more importantly, their sequencing, one can deduce a causal structure (X→Y) where the second machine appeared as the fulfilment of the promise given by the first (…) the speaking machine, presented first, would reach its telos in the thinking machine 1.

Such account or artificialization of thought as the result of speech, or even less, the result of sharing and modulating air, although certainly incomplete — or simply incorrect—, points nonetheless to a rather compelling image of thought, intelligence and mind, one founded upon unavoidable material movements kept by a structure of cognitive-recognitive agents 2 recursively relaying signals — modulated airflows as next-to-nothing functions — in order to structure themselves —either by what they share and what they don’t share — and to structure a plastic and thinkable world.

References

1 Dolar, M. (2006) A Voice and Nothing More.
Cambridge: The MIT Press. ISBN 978-0262541879

2 Negarestani, R. (2018) Intelligence and Spirit.
Falmouth: Urbanomic. ISBN 978-0-9975674-0-3