“In the next couple of years people won't even bother to mention that they've worked with AI,” muses Melbourne-based sound artist Daniel Jenatsch. For The Close World (2020-) series, which includes the ACMI commission The Close World – The Building, the artist used a subfield of Artificial Intelligence (AI) called Natural Language Processing to produce ‘human-like text’ to accompany his compositions. His work with AI tools spans a period in which attention and speculation on the future of AI has escalated from special interest to fever pitch. Jenatsch, who used Open AI’s GPT-2 and 3 for the narratives of his works, isn’t fazed. “It feels novel at the moment but it’s a tool like any other,” he explains. “It’s easy to imagine how it will just become more and more integrated into everything that we’re doing.” However, the sound artist rankles at the thought of using AI for anything more than scripts – at least in the meantime. “Maybe because I’m not really a writer, the texts it’s producing are pretty interesting to me, but at the moment voice synthesis all sounds like shit.”
Jenatsch began The Close World series in 2020, with its genesis in the artist’s curiosity about the artistic possibilities and generative capacity of GPT. The GPT model encourages a short, written prompt from the human users that triggers the tool to develop a text, including narratives, from a pre-existing set of published literature. Jenatsch’s early experiments with GPT-2 and 3 were underpinned by the question: “Could I undertake a worldbuilding exercise with those tools?” Rather than a push to faithfully replicate the human-generated texts, Jenatsch explains that he explored how to embrace the surreality of the content. To further his experiments, he trained the AI with “fundamental texts on the philosophy of language and key works by 'worldbuilding' authors of fantasy and science fiction.” “In the earlier versions of GPT you can easily distinguish between the text that is generated based on your training data, and texts that are ‘built in’” Jenatsch elaborates. “You can trace the line back. Sometimes you can even see direct quotes. I find that interesting. GPT3 kind of has more of a veneer, and you can't quite see the roots of any of the ideas so clearly.”
Jenatsch’s first presentation of The Close World series, was comprised of animatronic owls that were physically installed into the cavity of a gallery wall. Within a darkened space, the illuminated owls and their song drew gallery visitors across the room and then held them there with a compelling, nonsensical story. At the time Jenatsch described the work as a bit like “an opera of riddles”, in that it contained both meaning and no meaning, with the ultimate intent instead to move or transport the viewer or to generate affect in the audience.
The Close World – The Building is an interactive digital work, optimised for viewing on the user’s device, that echoes earlier iterations while also taking advantage of its digital form. Visually, The Building offers a post-apocalyptic sensibility with a finely balanced array of familiar and abstract visuals in disarray, divided into two discrete scenes. In The Welcome, singing owls dressed in knights' armour guard a dilapidated tower, teetering on an island drifting across a barren digital sea. Beyond this introduction is The Building, in which Jenatsch extrapolates on his first presentation of the smashed gallery wall, to create a view into a courtyard of the tower where we view the three-headed prophetic owls. While we can get closer to the owls, the shards around the hole stay static in the frame of the digital device, preventing the audience’s capacity to move entirely into The Close World.
As a semi-interactive digital commission, The Close World – The Building is distinct in being driven by a desire to guide audience engagement through subtle shifts in sound rather than just visual cues. “I wanted it to feel like a sound work with visuals,” explains Jenatsch. “Not a visual work with sound”. Indeed, it’s the layering and unique qualities of the audio that keep viewers transfixed by this work through longer ‘dwell’ times than is characteristic of current digital viewing habits.
Underpinning the spoken narrative, which follows the loose, non-linear absurdist journey of a ‘female soldier through The Close World’, as told by the owl characters, there are recurring sounds that keep the work and the story at the edge of comfort. These sounds include static, as though we are hearing information moving through cables, scampering and scratching, notes from an organ-like instrument, and a pattering beat that crescendos in a soft crash. Layered over these and other sounds are the owls, voiced by performer and academic Franziska Aigner, also known as FRANKIE, who relays the stories of – or perhaps from – The Close World throughout the series. “Fran, I think because of her background as a musician and as performer and an academic, she really manages to tread so carefully in her performance and interpretation of the texts. Somehow she's able to articulate the indifference with which the text is generated, but at the same time also invite people into The Building in a really generous way.”
In The Building scene in particular, Jenatsch provokes audience movement towards and away from the storytelling owls, encouraged by the ambiguity of additional whispers, echoes and phrases in Aigner’s voice. The sonic composition in this scene intensifies with the discussion of being in “the wrong world”, before resolving with an eerie and abstract suggestion that the ‘soldier’, the central character of The Close World who at times stands in as a reference for the audience, is welcome to return. It takes a moment to adjust to this nuance. Usually while zooming with touch screen or mouse we do not expect this action to provoke more complex and immersive sound, but rather to further animate or engage with the visual material onscreen. Jenatsch is critically aware that digital artworks preference the ocular. As he explains, “The main thing I wanted to explore with [collaborator] Tim Busuttil was a sense of the motion and interactivity of the work being driven by sound.” Working in collaboration with a web developer, Busuttil and Jenatsch were able to expand on and push these ideas as far as possible, within the limitations of working with live-rendered 3D online, while also producing a publicly accessible format; “The Building had to be ‘light’ to sync with sound even on the crappiest phone.”
Just as The Close World operates in a slippery space as “a sound work with visuals”, and a playable work of art, it also flickers between and references fragments of other ‘worlds’. In relation to the title Jenatsch explains, “It actually came from a typo in some early computer programming language text” that he found when reading about the difference between ‘closed world’ and ‘open world’ programming languages. “The ‘close’ world seemed, in that context, like another kind of space,” he says.
Alongside the language around worldbuilding, as a tool borrowed from science fiction writing, film and videogame production, Jenatsch shares other phrases and references that relate to the explorations with The Close World reminiscent of ruptures and fissures exploring the space between the analogue and digital production generated by working with GPT, such as the ‘para-real’ and ‘pataphor’.
“This quote by [French writer] Alfred Jarry has always stayed in my mind, he says something like ‘the pataphor is to the metaphor, what the metaphor is to reality’. It's kind of like this step that no longer refers to the real with any specificity, and that reminded me of how The Close World works. It never really refers to anything. That's the thing that I really learned from working with GPT 2 and 3. I feel like you never get much specificity.”
The Close World – The Building is compelling and unsettling, and intentionally unknowable. Although listed as a series, Jenatsch explains that The Close World feels more like a method in its rhythm, potential and the productive relationships between GPT and his human collaborators. He describes how he could see the possibility to make “100 different versions” of The Close World. However when pressed and with the advancements in ChatGPT, the one iteration of the work Jenatsch really wants to see may come far sooner than version 100. Imagining it to be an even more ambitious, “immersive and interactive” foray into the unknowable for the audience. Several months after completion, Jenatsch reflects that, “I would like people to be able to speak to the owls, and for the work to react to you.”
All quotes are drawn from interviews by the author with the artist primarily in late 2022 and early 2023. The wider references to The Close World 2021 can be found on the artist’s website, and on the archived website of the John Fries Award 2020 (held in 2021).
Miriam Kelly is a curator of contemporary art and currently works as Head of Curatorial and Exhibitions at Newcastle Art Gallery, formerly Curator at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) in Melbourne (2018–2022), and Curator of the John Fries Award 2019–20. Kelly also worked as Curator at Artbank Sydney (2013–17) then Senior Curator for Artbank Melbourne (2017–18), and at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, as Assistant Curator of Australian Paintings and Sculpture (2008–13). Miriam has curated exhibitions independently, as well as in her institutional roles and has published and presented on a range of contemporary practices and historical areas of Australian art.