Ars Electronica 2005
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Hybrid Creatures and Paradox Machines

“Designing new creatures is simply quite amusing!”
Amazon.de’s review of “Impossible Creatures,” a computer game released in early 2003

As one of the leading motifs in Early Greek art, hybrid creatures manifested themselves in a wide variety of ways. Art historians interpret these half-breeds as entities designed to stand in stark contrast to the culture of the Greeks, as embodiments of the barbaric periphery of the civilized world. This category encompasses the bizarre hybrid creatures that populate the mythology of Antiquity as well as those encountered by the title character in Umberto Eco’s novel Baudolino during his protracted search for the legendary kingdom of Prester John.

These creatures are by no means Eco’s inventions; they are mentioned in, among other sources, the 14th-century travel account of Sir John Mandeville, a work widely disseminated in Medieval Europe and a bestseller of its time. Like Baudolino, John Mandeville maintained the fiction of recounting true adventures experienced during his journeys. In reality, the work’s contents were taken almost entirely from libraries of travel literature, compilations of legends and historiographical treatises.

The modern-day counterpart of this symbolic confrontation with the monstrous—with an imagined world that certain peoples of Antiquity have not been the only ones to juxtapose to and thereby confirm the superiority of their own conceptions of reality—is the set of social problems that has reared its ugly head in the wake of the hybridization of globalized cultures. Whereas the semantic relation between the terms “hybrid” and “hubris” still seems to be characteristic in this context since this imaginary world that was assumed to be real was, indeed, successively and relatively rapidly corrected through observation of the natural world, the dominance over reality exerted by majority assumptions and the fact of prevalence (upon which no more light than necessary is shed) has changed but little over the course of the intervening epochs.

By reversing the meaning that hybrid creatures had in Antiquity with her cyborg metaphor, Donna Haraway has, in turn, countered this culture of prevalent dichotomies with another sort of hybrid creature and thereby postulated the utopian potential of a way of thinking that turns away from traditional mechanistic principles and patterns of categorization. Haraway’s countervailing instance concentrates on the nexus of gender, a motif that has also been taken up by other writers (e.g. Australian science fiction author Greg Egan in his novels Distress and Diaspora ) to depict social scenarios in which hybridization leads to the emergence of a third gender.

Popular culture and art have long been highly attractive playgrounds for such metaphorical half-breeds and “virgin machines,” though for the most part elaborated as messages meant to scare and admonish their recipients. This genre includes the sculptor Pygmalion’s work of art that comes to life, the Golem of Jewish mythology, Olimpia, the weird doll in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s novella The Sandman, Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein and his monstrous creature, Auguste Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s “Eve Future,” the monstrous menagerie in H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, Maria, the female robot in Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis and, of course, the replicants in Phillip Dick’s novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? that Ridley Scott went on to film as Blade Runner.

In 1996, a sort of domestication effect came to pervade the reception accorded to artificially engendered creatures with the appearance in everyday life of the Tamagotchi, an invention of Japanese developer Aki Maita. Among the technological phenomena that are rightfully to be regarded within this line of tradition are various computer games (whereas it might be said that the role of the Tamagotchi has now been taken over by the cell phone).

And while the plague of computer viruses capable of reproduction and mutation have launched a new instrument of terror (with political implications), that which we are receiving as entertainment on our monitor screens is exactly that about which the tales invented by the politically and socially committed Wells have been warning us-manifestations such as the norms in the game Creatures or the “impossible creatures” in the real-time strategy game of the same name in which the DNA of various and sundry animals is collected and combined in the laboratory.

The presumably most radically avant-garde and simultaneously most controversial examples of contemporary art associated with this theme are works by Eduardo Kac. Following Alba, in which he implanted green fluorescent protein in a rabbit, the artist produced the installation The Eighth Day, an entire ecosystem populated by trans-genetic amoebas, fish, mice, plants and a so-called biobot (bio + robot) whose activities were dependent upon, on one hand, the growth of the amoebas, and, on the other hand, observers on the scene via Internet.

Today, robotics, bionics and bio-engineering remain perennial chart-busters on the techno-hype hit parade, and this despite the gap that still yawns in most cases between expectations whetted by pie-in-the-sky prophesies and visible results. These are also concepts that continue to be associated with archaic conceptions of the imitation and improvement of nature and, in this context, stimulate fears and hopes in equal measure.

The exhibition entitled Hybrid Creatures and Paradox Machines showcases artists’ current takes on these issues in the form of artfully constructed apparatuses, refreshingly ironic paraphrases and poetically useless machines, linkages of real and virtual manifestations, pseudo-intelligent software agents and rebellious digital characters.
The concept of Hybrid Creatures and Paradox Machines came to fruition through a process of exchange and cooperation with the e-Golems Biennale.

Die e-Golems-Biennale
Juan E. Fleming

The Biennale was inspired by the Golem figure, a homunculus associated with Rabi Loew from Prague at the time of Rudolf II and subject of the poem “The Golem” by Jorge Luis Borges. Metaphorically, according to the cabbalist Gerschom Scholem, it is associated with the computer and its connected scientific and technological developments. The Golem is also linked to ‘robot’, a term coined by Karel Capek in his play “R.U.R.” (Rossum Universal Robots) premiered in 1922 as much as to artificial intelligence and reality, cybernetics, nano-technologies and the Internet. Relevant in this context is the book “God and Golem, Inc.” by Norbert Wiener, considered the ‘father’ of cybernetics.

Thus, the name “e-Golems” alludes to the “electronic golems” developed from the uses and applications of computers.
The first edition of the “e-Golems” or “electronic Golems” Biennale took place in Prague from July 2nd to July 5th 2005.

It had as its main topic for discussion “Interdisciplinary Aspects of Human-Machine Co-existence and Co-operation.”
The Biennale originated in a proposal from the Argentine to the Czech Republic with a view to promoting the bilateral relationship between the two countries through subjects of mutual interest. This would at the same time signify a contribution to the advancement in cultural, scientific and technological fields, open to scientists, researchers, intellectuals and artists from all over the world wishing to take part.