Research Summary

My practice-based PhD project in Art explores the extent to which personhood is encoded in ‘character’, and whether fictional characters can be reverse engineered into something approximating persons - perhaps resulting in a literary form of (general) artificial intelligence. By virtue of enquiring about artificial personhood, the project in turn reflects on the self as a fiction, whose reality manifests as ‘exchange value’ rather than essence. It also asks about the role of text (code, alphabet, genes) in the coding of character, and thus how creative writing can be used as a tool to directly probe personhood.

 

I approach this overlapping space between fictional characters and ‘real’ persons through a number of ‘art experiments’ involving my own person and the fictional characters I write. The main ones are 1) Anomaline, a novel about an anti-person and 2) a series of quick, iterative performances in which I probe the reaches of my own person through a panoply of improvised characters. The combination of a durational work (the 'incubator' novel) and quick, iterative works (the performances) allows me to approach the question of character personhood across two different temporalities.

 

Below is a timeline of my work so far. Most of the nodes reveal external links if you hover over them. Access the main features here:

 


Anomaline | Performance | Thesis

Research Timeline
New work: Fictional Politician. Video, 3 min.
Creating character voiceovers for AI-generated portrait images of people that don't exist. 
New work: The Hospital of Happiness. Video, 12 min.
Creating character voiceovers for AI-generated portrait images of people that don't exist. 
Supervision report (M)
Question: What is the relationship between a code and 'running' it, and how can that inform an attempt to script for an agent in fiction?
Reading: Dawkins, R. The Blind Watchmaker (1991). My reflections on algorithmic design in cumulative selection found here.
Experimented with simple evolutionary algorithms that evolve 'English sounding' sentences.
Reading: Frow, J. Character and Person (2014). Ward, M. Seeming Human: Artificial Intelligence and the Victorian Realist Character (2018).
CHASE proposal for departmental stage of selection (successful)
Supervision report (G)
Question: Can the dual mechanism of a code and its ‘expression’ contribute to a revised model of autonomous systems broadly and agents or persons specifically? Could this model be used to engineer a fictional character that could pass a Turing test?
Supervision report (M)
Reading: Dennett, D. C. Real Patterns (1991)
Experiment: Use GPT-2 to generate autocompletions of my performance text, which starts with the phrase, "Are you aware, that between 20-22% of things that happen, actually don't happen?" with varying substitutions for that percentage.
Art Research PresentationBreathing Space for Voices by Rowena Harris, Erica Scourti & myself. I presented a performance in which I become a fictional character, and followed this with a presentation called Accommodating Others: The Role of Author as Medium, which later formed the basis of a thesis chapter.
Teaching: Began teaching BA CS Y1
Rehearsing & developing three short performances for exhibition at Elephant West: Twenty PercentLong Term Ethics and The Widow.
Supervision report (G)
Supervision report (M)
New work: Preparation. Video, 12 min.
On the morning of my performance at Elephant West I was feeling nervous, and decided to talk to myself about the task at hand through the prism of another fictional character.
I exhibited drawing, film and performance at Ridiculous! curated by Paul Carey-Kent, at Elephant West. The three performances involved assuming three different characters that expound passionately on a potentially dubious view.
Art Research Installation: Here I presented Personal Metrics, in which I performed three characters and then asked the audience to fill out personality questionnaires based on their impressions of each fictional character.
Met and started conversation with psychology researcher Sylvia Terbeck of Liverpool University after her talk at Goldsmiths (Whitehead Lecture Series)
Idea: To collaborate on an experiment to test potential therapeutic benefit of my performance method (ST) and to find out about the relationship between the self-estrangment method and the self-complexity psychological measure (KR).
Question: Is ‘character’ a technology of the self which both enables and demarcates the limits of what is thinkable to a person? If so, could a fictional character be a prototype of general AI?
Covid-19 Lockdown begins
Joined an independent research groupIntelligence Debiased, run by Exposed Arts. Over a period of a year, we will research and discuss non-human or unconventially considered forms of intelligence - my focus is on 'character intelligence'.
Thesis chapter: Completed first draft of Accommodating Others: The Role of Author as Medium.
Idea: Maybe method comes before question in an art practice? A question might be the final outcome of an art PhD. I might present my thesis in chapter 'pairs': artwork paired with reflection/theory (e.g. Pseudo with Accommodating Others)
New workSelf-Estrangement as Method, Pt I
In the Intelligence Debiased research group, we decided to share some of our artistic methodologies for others to try unfamiliar methods. I the 'self-estrangement' method I use in my performance making. Part 1 is a tutorial.
New workSelf-Estrangement Methods, Pt II
While part I attempts to neutrally introduce my method, part II demonstrates its application to the topic of our research: intelligence. In this video I switch into a different character. But in the 'neutral' tutorial, I also seem to be performing. When am I not?
Funding: received departmental Research Support Award to translate a performance text (A Ritual Resuscitation of Eternal Lovers) into Arabic, Italian and Lithuanian.
Idea: My efforts at direct activism over the past couple of months seemed futile. My art practice is the best way for me to intervene politically in the world, even if indirectly. My practice seeks to estrange the ideological foundations of personhood. Maybe that's not a superfluous ambition, even in crisis.
Annual Review Panel: I presented the first chapter of Anomaline and Self-Estrangement as Method: Part 2.
Supervision report (G)
Supervision report (M)
Ethics Form
Writing for Practice Forum: I read two chapters of Anomaline alongside Dennett's Real Patterns (1991) with the group, and with artist Andy Holden as respondent. 
New work: Horse. Ink on paper, A3.
I'm not sure that this is connected to this research project, but I spent some of lockdown returning to older work, such as these empathy drawings. It's been about five years since I made the last one. They conjure for me some of the sensibilities running through Anomaline.
Free writing for Anomaline
New IterationA Ritual Resuscitation of Eternal Lovers.
This older-than-the-phd project helps me think about the play script as a computational mechanism for cultivating agents.
Teaching: Completed Academic Practice module (passed). Created a BA Critical Studies 1 lecture with commentary.
Lecture: Authors and Agents (video rehearsal)
New IterationA Ritual Resuscitation of Eternal Lovers.
This older-than-the-phd project helps me think about the play script as a computational mechanism for cultivating agents.
New work: Neighbours. Video, 15 min.
Improvised video performance playfully processing a soup of recent readings and experiences.
Took over as organiser of the Writing for Practice Forum from Rowena Harris & Kate Pickering.
Question: Can performance art / acting show that roleplay (both the kind we do automatically in the daily practice of living, and the more deliberate kind), in the sense of ‘taking on a character’, be a factor in the discrimination of ideas, or a factor in ideation?
Anomaline: Wrote Reclaiming the Pen chapter.
Method: reflections on the role of practice in research
Do my characters have an 'agenda'?
Upgrade: 1st draft Anomaline
First draft
Teaching: presenting my BA lecture, Authors and Agents at to WCA and Camberwell students.
Publication: contribution of video essay to Phenomenology and Practice (ed. Emma Cocker & Alex Arteaga)
Exhibition: organised with my research group, Intelligence Debiased at Exposed Arts.
Reading: Dennett, D. C. Freedom Evolves (2003)
CHASE college internal selection (unsuccessful)
New work: Time Off. Video, 4 min.
New work: Beyond Recognition. Video, 19 min.
New work: Play is Play. Video, 42 min.
I converse in realtime with one of my fictional characters on the subject of distributed personhood. Presented as my Art Research Presentation on 27 Oct 2020.
Supervision report (M)
Performed Pseudo at the Online Performance Art Festival