Tempus Fugit: Pompeii’s Paradox and Fading Empires
A series of newly produced digital paintings titled Inventory of Magic Mining NO. 1-5 introduces Miao Ying’s Digital Fellowship. Generated with a gaming engine, these works show a landscape of computing and data mining where the magic of technology is presented in its historical manifestations—from man’s first fire, to time-travel tunnels located among coal mines and data farming centres. They hint at a technological mysticism belonging to more-than-human narratives, and are an important clue in orientating oneself when approaching the graphic novel that will be gradually revealed on pompeiicommitment.org, with a new chapter published every two weeks. It would otherwise be hard to guess that Tempus Fugit: Pompeii’s Paradox and Fading Empires was written for Pompeii Commitment. Archaeological Matters by Artificial Intelligence — Machine Learning Text Generation Neural Networks and Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3, better known as GPT-3 — with the prompt of the artist, who trained the AI to study and absorb different styles of writing and then generated a non-human assistant through a chatbot. Feeding ChatGPT with ancient books and encyclopaedias on Roman life, nineteenth century novels and restoration manuals, contemporary and ancient books on Pompeii as well as Chinese and European time-travel literature, Miao Ying originated a meta-archive out of which the adventures of a character called Jack were born. Jack is a contemporary American tourist amazed by his first visit to Pompeii and tempted by the multitude of archaeological fragments and artefacts, unaware of the curse and time-travelling power these hide within their matter. As the plot unfolds, an encounter with a roman gladiator turns into a socio-cultural exchange from ancient Rome to contemporary America, and even a mediaeval Pompeii.
The non-human authorship of Tempus Fugit: Pompeii’s Paradox and Fading Empires places Miao Ying’s Digital Fellowship in the midst of debates characterising the technological episteme of our time. ChatGPT is an Artificial Intelligence chatbot developed by Microsoft-backed US company OpenAI. It was launched in November 2022, built on top of OpenAI’s GPT-3.5 and GPT-4 families of large language models. Its usage quickly increased worldwide, reaching over one million users in just a month, however not without polemics and complications. Schools are debating whether to allow students and researchers to employ it if quoted among their sources, whilst its “evil sibling” DAN—short for “Do Anything Now,” a so-called jailbreak version of ChatGPT, unchained and unfiltered—runs wild, giving tips online on how to cheat at poker as well as demonstrating that, in the absence of enforced guidelines, the AI chatbot chews and recycles patriarchal prejudices expressing views that result extremely racist, sexist and homophobic. Censorship, online cultures and advanced digital technologies are core to Miao Ying’s practice, who has long been exploring the potentially satirical reactions to prohibitive state control while also observing what happens when feeding AI opposing ideological theories. Her past work The Blind Spot (2007) is a 1,869-page long Mandarin dictionary manually annotated to indicate 2,000 search terms that were censored in China at the time. Miao Ying spent three months looking up every word on google.cn. Her Chinternet Plus (2016) consisted of a parodic take on the original strategy of “Internet Plus,” a five-year digitisation plan introduced in 2015 by China’s Premier of the State Council, Li Keqiang. More recently—fascinated with what she calls the “Stockholm Syndrome” that Chinese citizens experience toward the Great Firewall and the experience of browsing Internet in China (the “Chinternet”)—the artist developed Pilgrimage into Walden XII (2020–ongoing), which includes live simulation machine-learning software as well as a film written by GPT-3, and consists of a quest style romantic story between a citizen roach and the AI who is monitoring its behaviour.
With the work developed by Miao Ying for her Digital Fellowship, what emerges is a proposal for a collaborative approach—both with the more-than-human, and the experts that helped selecting the source material which was fed to the AI—an ethos which very much resonates with the broader Pompeii Commitment. Archaeological Matters programme enquiry. Both Miao Ying and the AI programmes she worked with learned from Pompeii in order to develop a methodology: an advanced techno-archaeology recovering lost information and interpreting substrata of historical data in order to generate what cyberfeminist scholar Donna Haraway calls “speculative fabulation.” Through such a lens, the online portal of Pompeii Commitment. Archaeological Matters itself potentially becomes a digital oracle of yet untold stories where an event, or a paradox—rather than a catastrophe—changes the course of linear history. CA
Miao Ying, Inventory of Magic Mining NO. 1-5, 2023, oil on canvas, Installation View at Art Basel, Hong Kong, 2023. Courtesy the Artist and Galerie nächst St. Stephan Rosemarie Schwarzwälder, Vienna
Digital Fellowship 05
Pompeii Commitment 2023
Curated by Andrea Viliani e Stella Bottai,
with Laura Mariano and Caterina Avataneo
in collaboration with CURA.
Formafantasma, Allison Katz, Legacy Russell,
Miao Ying, Anri Sala, Rose Salane, Sissel Toolas
June 2022 — July 2023