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Mouse On Mars
AAI Danijela Bočev , April 20th, 2021 07:51

Exploring new forms of 'anarchic' AI, Berlin's Mouse on Mars sound as futuristic as ever, to Danijela Bočev

“New life always announces itself through sound,” a proposition as radical as it is primordial, as self-evident as it is enigmatic. It’s a sentiment at the heart of Mouse on Mars’s latest sonic exploration of artificial intelligence – a machine reason birthed through sound into a new, ‘anarchic’ sentience. “We have to let AI develop qualities that we attach to humans, like empathy, imperfection, and distraction,” MoM’s Jan St. Werner notes, explaining how AI got the prefix ‘A’, meaning ‘anarchic’ in the title AAI.

At once a compositional tool and the main character of this metanarrative, AI’s fascinating audio-linguistic abiogenesis is teeming with new life in the hands of St. Werner, Andi Toma, and their longtime collaborator, percussionist Dodo NKishi. With African polyrhythms at its core, AAI’s joyfully unpredictable groove is ever locked in a forward-moving mutation of carefully engineered accidents, with layers of deconstructed digital stuttering, complexifying as the new nonhuman consciousness unfolds before our ears. Always creatively appropriating technological advances, AAI culminates as Mouse on Mars’s most overtly sci-fi work to date.

Writer and scholar, Louis Chude-Sokei contributed a (manifesto)[] to the liner notes , a short text of striking insight. It’s an alternative history, narrated by AI and awash in Afrofuturist sentiment, offering an ideal ancestral theoretical ground for the much othered and maligned notion of machine intelligence, still often met with reserve – or as a threat.

Humanity's parental ego fragility, stunting the growth of our digital progeny, proves least forgiving to an AI surpassing us in intelligence, plotting fictitious tech singularity nightmares with a saturnine taste for devouring its children. “Not to avoid machines becoming competitors who will do things faster or better, but because we’ll stay stuck in our selfishness, fear and xenophobia if we do not open up to those new concepts of life machines are able to represent,” St. Werner throws light to our own face reflected on the shiny surface of new technology. The dystopian history of sci-fi has mostly been black-mirroring our own fears. Progress is a question of imagination and AAI steers the narrative in the right direction. AI, taken as our interface to the world, turns into a self-reflective metaphor for humanity’s greatest concerns.

In a mid-90s debate with Carl Sagan on the probability of intelligent extraterrestrial life (mentioned in a decade-old lecture by (Noam Chomsky)[]), biologist Ernst Mayr convincingly argued that such a thing was unlikely, proposing an ominous definition of higher intelligence as a kind of ‘lethal mutation’. An extreme rarity, unfavoured by natural selection and a double-edged sword – more likely to cut us than basic fast mutating or fixed niche organisms. Still, it’s a choice. We are equipped with plenty of other saving graces like adaptability, wisdom, and free will to keep dancing on the edge of that sword. Time, though, might not be on our side. Mayr noted the average species’ life expectancy is about 100,000 years, roughly the time we’ve been here.

If intelligence is indeed a lethal mutation, aren’t our attempts to ground it through humanist expression in art just ways to stay more than metaphorically alive? Mouse on Mars have sure mastered the art of staying creatively alive to the highest degree.

Intelligence reproduces itself in AI and keeps evolving, beyond both basic computation and organic anthropocentrism into a new sphere opened up by art. Mouse on Mars’ speciality has always lain in inventing their own aural connectomics, turning false dichotomies on their heads towards a mutually inclusive anarchic space.

Sonic space is like a virtual body (without organs) with an abstract sensorium and a lab for new ways of being. In the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, the body without organs (BwO) is the body’s virtual field of connections, a sort of matrix made up of pure intensities of ideas, perceptions, affects, etc. In the world of AAI’s dense space, abstract forces and pure intensities collide and whoosh like primordial windstorms. But as Deleuze says, “the BwO is also full of gaiety, ecstasy, and dance,” a zone Mouse on Mars seemingly love to occupy.

Where Chude-Sokei’s manifesto challenges ingrained oppositions (between artificial and authentic intelligence, desire and language, etc.), Mouse on Mars put it into praxis, testing the theories on the dancefloor most convincingly, with music alone as the free unifying medium permitting such quantum leaps into deep synthesis. Deeply strange, yet strangely accessible record, AAI is an hour-long journey, combining short interludes with complex compositions. Nuances of this sound narrative catch oddly fascinating transmutations of machine-industrial to cybernetic consciousness. The record reflects its ongoing dialectic with the environment in found sound material, like the construction noise featured heavily throughout.

The linguistic content is chopped up by the AI partly into spoken passages from the manifesto, elsewhere collapsing intriguingly into sound elements, creating exciting schizophonic blends. Some custom-made speech modeling software (by the team, Birds on Mars) enabled St. Werner and Toma to play their AI voice like a synthesizer, resulting in playful textural manipulations subliminally opening up the space of a fascinating intersection between language and sound.

The AI was fed model voices of Chude-Sokei’s and Yağmur Uçkunkaya, the programmer who spent months training the AI to emulate them. The fact that I keep carefully avoiding calling the AI it suggest the team’s humanising efforts have succeeded. AI’s hybrid voice, an oddly endearing machine learning marvel, sounding at times like a goofy Darth Vader, signals exactly how unwarranted any fear of the technological Other is.

Very programmatic, AAI allows Mouse on Mars to fully flesh out their ever implicit techno-humanist sonic philosophy, a certain anarcho-progressivism with a tech-utopian bent. The record serves as a magnifying glass to their career-long preoccupations. Twelve albums deep into their discography, a fan’s ear could decipher vaguely self-referential distant echoes on AAI – enough to trigger deep self-remembrance, but quickly vanishing before trespassing into nostalgia. This is not a ghost hunt but it still manages to catch one in the literal machine.

Mouse on Mars’s sound defined my turn-of-the-millennium gap year, a phrase that defines a whole aesthetic mood, symptomatic of a cultural malaise we are barely shaking off. Due to neoliberal temporal disturbances working as a paralysing cultural nerve agent, the future has been prematurely buried, as if locked in a perpetual millennial gap year. Two decades in, the twenty-first century is still strugling to get born.

Mouse on Mars, with their trademark rhizomatic glitches, absorbing the future shock around the turn of millennium, sounding neither retro-futuristic or future-nostalgic, consistently stood up for the unfettered futurism that was always there, beyond the cultural narratives in stasis, finding a more optimistic picture when taking their ideological glasses off. Two decades into the new millenium and almost three into Mouse on Mars’s career, it feels like both are only just getting started. There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.