ORGAN | 24 February 2023

‘B1NARY 0DES’, Sasha Stiles’ solo exhibition at Annka Kultys Gallery ,was reviewed by Sean Worrall for ORGAN, who deemed it ‘an excellent show, a stimulating show, a show with heart, with soul’.

ORGAN THING: Sasha Stiles, Binary Odes at Annka Kultys Gallery. A brave new story, or is a beautifully poetic take on an old one? Whatever the point (missed), a rather recommended art exhibition once more…

Sasha Stiles – Binary Odes at Annka Kultys Gallery –  Where were we? Back along the increasingly unfriendly Hackney Road, avoiding the new gatekeepers and heading for the industrial park around the back where the Annka Kultys Gallery now hides. Annka Kultys Gallery is one of the more reliable galleries on this side of town, whatever she’s doing this time, you know it is going to be interesting, challenging, you know it will be worth your time, in an increasingly alienating East London, the gallery stands out.

So tonight is the opening of Brooklyn-based American artist Sasha Stiles’ first solo show in the UK, the advance publicity has been deliberately avoided, let’s just see it without the knowledge offered by the press release that came in earlier. This is Annka Kultys Gallery, we know it almost certainly is going to involve the new world, the future take on things, that bright light new world is this particular gallery’s in-real-life, let’s go see. Actually before hand, we spy that the old Annka Kultys space up above the shop by the bus stop on the main Hackney Road has been taken over by Plop, good to see the space living on as an art space, we need more art spaces, we need new blood, we need a thriving art community, East London is no where near what it was in terms of engaging art. Plop have an opening tonight as well, more on that in a bit, down at the end, let’s deal with the reason for being here tonight, let’s deal with the beauty of the Sasha Stiles exhibition first…

The Sasha Stiles show then, we’re told it spans the gallery’s irl space in East London, and its newly augured virtual reality gallery, Annka Kultys Phygital. Within these joint presentations, viewers encounter the multimedia array of language play that constitutes Stiles’ groundbreaking practice – see I did read the press release when I got back to the studio. There are people over there in the corner, taking turns with a headset and doing something virtual, I’m still trying to juggle four looms at once, that and boil the nettles and anyway, you need a full set of eyes for that kind of thing don’t you? I’m a fully signed up one-eyed Luddite and that canvas over there in the real life bit of the gallery is demand my attention. Don’t be talking to me about the coldness of virtual reality, art needs to breathe, art needs a texture, you need to feel like you can touch it, that it can touch you, it needs a heart, you need that silent conversation that you can only have when you stand in front of a piece of art, that intimate private conversation you have when you stand in a gallery and it is just you and the piece of art and the artist.     

Understanding poetry as a technological vessel or carrier bag for the broad spectrum of human experience across time and space, the artist entangles multiple formats and resource materials – from original poetry to classical aphorism, AI-generated text, handcrafted words, and binary code – to weave multidimensional worlds rooted in storytelling. In Binary Odes, poetry becomes code, and vice versa – scaffolding a multi-authored cultural feedback loop in which ancient narratives are reconfigured as affective linguistic landscapes, capable of reorienting us towards an increasingly posthuman future.

So there’s people playing with headsets and I’m ushered towards whatever they’re doing as soon as I walk in, hey, the physical exhibition space is calling the “irl” space as we’re now calling it (yes, that bit was typed with a cynical smile). i;m being offered a headset but these pieces on the real life gallery wall are demanding my undivided attention. This looks like something rather beautifully intriguing, these tactile drawings rendered with ink and pencil on paper and those larger acrylic canvas paintings really are catching the eye. Experiments in translating epic poetry into binary code so we’re told and yes, without being told you kind of tune in to the binary shapes, you see the code, the zeroes and ones, they’re not too obvious but you see them straight away. It is so beautifully painted though, so much so that you kind of forget that and just start to enjoy the poetry of the marks, the paint, the movement of the brush, the beautiful flow of the artist, the pieces.

The series of canvases forming Ancient Binary (2022), rendered with oil, acrylic, pencil, spray paint and chalk, recast classical poems including The Odyssey and The Epic of Gilgamesh into binary code. Scrubbed-out zeroes and ones characterize the twinned canvases of The epic of Gilgamesh, he who sees the unknown and I tell you someone will remember us in the future, as well as another duo, Poema pictura loquens and Pictura poems silens (all 2022). Reminiscent of overused chalkboards, their surfaces crack and disintegrate under the weight of a seemingly infinite history of storytelling, appearing like ancient artifacts of their own. Song of Illium (2020) is host to a more futuristic retelling: its zeroes and ones are rendered in silvery spray paint across weighted lines of code that at first seem machine generated, until further observation of the stencil reveals the idiosyncratic logic of a human touch.

You get all this, all the Scrubbed-out zeroes and ones or you at least sense all this, or at least sense some of this just by looking, without knowing, without reading the press release or the gallery statement before hand, without the knowledge of what’s before you. just by standing in the room looking and the various exquisite canvas pieces and the way the zeroes and ones have been drawn and painted, the way it has been crafted, the almost ancientness of it all, the something lost and found. You sense that depth, you know there’s more but you don’t really care about the technology, the under the hood stuff, you also rather quickly sense that this is not just any old code. And yes, maybe I shouldn’t be in here viewing it as a grumpy old Luddite one time textile designer and I should be embracing the now of coding and the AI-generated blockchains and maybe I am completely missing the whole damn point and this is probably not what the artist or indeed the gallery want to read and no i don’t want to release a bloody NFT stop damn well asking me. Maybe I’m completely missing the point but you know what, I don’t really care, I love the poetic beauty in here in the “real life gallery”, I love the texture, the marks, the paint, the perfect imperfection. I love the poetic flow, oh the irony of missing the irony…  

In Stiles’ Cursive Binary (2020-ongoing) series, a collection of twelve canvases, drawings, and ink on paper works, the hand of the artist becomes more apparent. As any reputable graphologist would tell you, the human psyche roosts in cursive: the eubillence of a loop or the slant of an interconnected word becomes an entry point into personal worlds that reveal the inner workings of their author. Here, binary code becomes exuberant, almost silly, reaffirmed with work titles such as I’m data’s girl and Cogito ergo sumthing. These titles reflect a kind of post-internet irony or cultural meme, serving as affective data map of our communal consciousness, from primordial campfire storytelling to the all-consuming Twitter brain.

Bookending the works on paper and canvas in the gallery are two large monitors presenting Stiles’ digital video works, 0RAL B1NARY: B1NARY 0DE (2022), and her Fragment (2022) series. Since 2018, Stiles has collaborated with Technelegy, the artist’s AIpoet alter-ego and custom text generator rooted in OpenAI’s now-infamous large language model, GPT-3. Across both projects, the kaleidoscopic, polyphonic potential of language AIs comes into fruition. In 0RAL B1NARY: B1NARY 0DE, a generative “token word” project featuring an original score by Kris Bones offers a poetic homage to multiplicity and the many worlds that bleed between the zeroes and ones. Within the Fragment series, composed of Fragment 1, Fragment 2 (Thedreambegan), and Fragment 3 (Terrifyingtolearn), Stiles’ scribbled cursive binary resurfaces, this time soaked in chroma key green. The videos zoom in hypnotically on each apparition; after a while, the mind seems to hallucinate flickers and pulses in the script, as if replicating the boot sequence of a vintage computer coming to life. Each Fragment video will be sold as an NFT (ed. 100) on the Tezos blockchain, and can be purchased directly in the gallery.

And you know what, I don’t really care about any of those last two paragraphs, I should say sorry but I’m really really not, I really couldn’t give a flying flip about an NFT although that video screen really does connect in a way most video screens in galleries never quite do, that old school computer green, you know what, I really wouldn’t mind a well finished matt print on some very fine old school art paper, yeah I know, completely utterly missing the point, go play with your loom and your broken photocopier, and no, Technelegy is not another one of my one-eyed Organ typos…   

Finally, in the virtual white cube space of Annka Kultys Phygital, the artist presents a poetic triptych, a collaborative poem rendered in glowing RGB neon. There are as many ways to be human (2022) was written by Stiles in partnership with Technelegy; the three-verse poem, drawn from Stiles’ own poetry as well as GPT-3’s expansive neural net, considers language as a tool for more-than-human survivial: “poetry is a way of thinking up how to thwart extinction.” Presented across three walls of the virtual gallery, the poem’s mantra recalls that of Octavia Butler’s Parables series: “the only lasting truth is change.” In The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, the speculative fiction author and poet Ursula K. Le Guin argues that the story is humanity’s original and most meaningful technology. Le Guin’s short text highlights the generative power of storytelling as a cultural carrier bag that locates us within a shared present while simultaneously reorienting us towards possible futures. Like a ritual, the story is born anew every time it is retold, imprinting its changes upon us, the listeners. Likewise, the generative technologies of AI-powered language models can be understood as a similar approach to narrative world-making. When approached sensitively and with care, the latent space of human-AI collaboration can lend itself to a more-than-human intelligence.

And I give you all these (maybe lazy) slices of the press release (all cut ‘n pasted with a Pritt Stick and a sharp knife) because you need it and I really am happy to be missing the whole point and yes Le Guin and her story born again really is where it is at, just leave me in the corner with my cans of spray paint and those balloons that H.G Wells warned us about and that fighter planes eventually had to be invented to deal with…  

Understanding these ideas through the lens of postcolonial worlding theorist Gayatri Spivak, who argues that whoever wields language also creates (and destroys) worlds, we can consider the work of Stiles, who is of Kalmyk descent, as a decolonial approach to emergent AI technologies, which bear traces of older colonial power structures. Through her expanded collaborations with AI language models as well as her interest in reorienting binary code as a generative poetics for new forms of storytelling, Stiles’ work rejects the primacy of the human, while opening up new shared worlds in the process. Binary Odes offers an window into this powerful practice, which is as generous as it is generative. Stiles’ exhibition encourages us to listen deeply and read between the lines, in order to storytell a future that exists somewhere between the space of zeros and ones.

So anyway, for what any of it is worth, I loved Sasha Stiles’ art in the real life gallery, I probably loved it for all the wrong reasons, the headset and the NFT stuff, for all that is “stuff”, that stuff left me cold and the camera will be the death of all us painters and the “stuff” bit left me feeling not that bothered that it left me cold, I don’t like power looms either,  and probably for all the wrong reasons and while probably missing the whole damn point, or maybe I didn’t, maybe that is the point? Whatever the point, the point is I loved the show, the paintings, the drawings, the textures, the shapes he sense of the zeroes and the ones, the code, the shapes of things to come. And yes, you probably should read up on the show, you probably should equip yourself before you go. and yes, if you have the time you really should go.

As I was leaving the artist, Sasha asked me (in a really friendly way) if I had any questions, I said no, I said I didn’t want to ask any questions, that I just wanted to walk out in the hackney night with just what I got from the art, to think about just that, to enjoy it, but of course there are a thousand questions, there’s hours of discussions to be had, debates, not arguments, not heads in sand. This is an excellent show, a stimulating show, a show with heart, with soul, and that Ursula K. Le Guin bit is important and she surely was never about the hardness of science fiction was she? Surely hers was a softer take on the story and really could anyone even imagine keeping four looms going at once in the now of it all? “If you don’t sell an NFT then it’ll be Waterloo porridge and the workhouse for you my boy…”

Excellent art exhibition, really interesting challenging artist, provoking show, beautiful poetry, got a hundred questions now. (sw)

The Annka Kultys Gallery is at 472 Hackney Road, Unit 9, London, E2 9EQ. No longer up those stairs above that shop on the main street, you now need to go around the back through the red gates to the small industrial estate behind the shop space now, the gallery is to your left at the back in the dark of the far corner.   The Sasha Styles show runs until te 18th March 2023      

Footnote: Hey Plop, when someone bothers to make the effort to come have a look at what you’re doing (as I just did on my way to the Annka Kultys opening tonight), don’t stop them half way up your stairs and speak to them like they’re shit on your shoe and tell them it isn’t for them and that they’re not welcome. “Plop is a community-driven project” so you say on your website, really? When someone makes the effort don’t turn your middle class art student noses up at them in such an unfriendly way. Surely is art is about anything it should be about engagement? About the community you talk of? What a load of old unfriendly unengaging plop, there’s a lot of it floating about in East London now….

A visual taste, a badly photographed hint of the Sasha Styles show, do click on an image to enlarge and see the whole photo, or to run the fractured slide show…

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