Speaking to CulturAll’s Culture Editor, Johanna Hedva attempts to define what inspired them to make a video game about nothing…
How did Glut: A Superabundance of Nothing come about?
Glut is a project that began with these two strange events that happened over the last few years that I didn’t really think were connected until recently. The first one was many years ago in Los Angeles, when a witch guided me through a shamanic trance to find my sacred inner temple and weapons, and it was entirely anticlimactic and kind of hilarious, because when I got there in this vision, the weapons that I was seeing were things like bits of exploded brain and some intestinal bowel.
It felt very confusing, rather like “Oh, I thought I was supposed to have a mystical experience right now”, but instead it was one of returning to the mundanities of the body. So that happened, and I didn’t really think about it, except that it was a bit odd. And then, years later, Amazon recommended my own book to me, and it felt very similar. It felt like, on the one hand, I was a bit impressed with the Amazon algorithm for figuring out that among the millions and millions of consumer products that it’s trying to sell, it actually found my book to recommend to me – one of the reasons why that’s weird is because I didn’t even know my books were available on Amazon. They’re published by very small presses. So in both instances I felt a kind of a magic, frankly, but in a strange, very anticlimactic way: the Amazon incident recalled this feeling I had had many years before with this weird demonic trance that kind of felt to me like it didn’t get very transcendent, but the opposite.
A little over a year ago, I started to think about these two events in relation to each other and pondered if there was a way to make something that could induce that same feeling in an audience. The more conceptual or theoretical approach was that I’d been thinking about AI, and I was really excited about the questions about what exactly AI was before computers. If you think about what we think of to be something that constitutes intelligence, there are certain things like an ability to recognise patterns and ability to predict what would come next in a pattern: these are all things that divination techniques have been doing for centuries.
So, I really got interested in the idea that AI has existed for a long time before computers in the forms of different divinations. Then it kind of started to get into a critical place of asking something like “is Amazon our contemporary form of mysticism? Is Amazon a kind of divination technique?”. Those questions were sort of informing my theoretical inquiries into the different sort of questions and thoughts and ideas around it. At some point it seemed to start to coalesce with the feelings about these two events, and I came upon this sort of way of talking about it: a feeling of the mystical uncanny that rather than a feeling of mystical experience being one of the Epiphany or revelation or transcendence beyond our earthly limits, it was kind of the opposite effect. It was radically material, confusing and claustrophobic, and it heightened my sense of my earthly limits, rather than transcending them.
In the piece’s text corpus, there’s Amazon alongside medieval mystics and also contemporary writers. What drew you to the authors you chose?
I’ve been really obsessed with the medieval women mystics for a long time for many reasons. Women’s accounts of their mystical experiences are really different, usually, from male mystics. Another of the reasons is because there’s this interesting kind of politics around the literacy at that time, the only people that knew how to read and write for a long time were male priests, and so a lot of the time when you’re reading medieval women’s mystic writings, you’re reading a hagiographer who’s writing them for her, so there’s this kind of interpretive framework that gets applied where a male priest is basically trying to explain the crazy shit that’s going on with this woman.
The other thing that’s really interesting is that some of the women mystics were literate, and did read and write down their own experiences. So there are these sort of questions around who’s telling whose stories and who is legible to who, and how we articulate experiences that we kind of don’t have language for. So the text corpus that I built over a period of four lunar cycles for the project was really just taking the sentences from different sources. There are contemporary philosophers and theorists and poets and novelists, next to theoretical physicists, and mathematicians writing about black holes and dark matter. And then there are these medieval mystical writings. In terms of writers, I really did pull a lot from mystical texts for this project.
There’s this one anthology, that’s now out of print, that I pulled a lot from called Medieval Women’s Visionary Literature. It’s one of the only sources that I know of where you get whole chapters or excerpts or manuscripts written by the original writers. And then the kind of language that Amazon speaks, you know, like, “was this helpful?”, and “what other customers bought”. This kind of algorithmic language that Amazon speaks to you, I just thought it was really an interesting kind of collision between these different things. I feel like on some level, they’re all trying to get at something that can’t be really encapsulated in language; like one of the things that’s so dystopian about the internet, and certainly websites that are designed on an algorithm to serve you, is that they all end up sounding the same: there’s this flattening of nuance and subtlety.
What’s interesting to me about the Amazon thing is the lack of bodies that you see. I mean, Amazon is completely powered and only works because of its labour force that is grossly exploited, but because it’s all happening online, you don’t really see the material effects in the same way. This is what capitalism does so well: it hides the bodies that it requires to work, and all of the exploitation, and extractive labour and precarity. There’s something about that, for me, in that it’s not the same as mystical experiences but there’s something at the heart of mysticism that’s a way of trying to get rid of the body.
There was a passage in your piece, The Sick Woman Theory, about how we can resist capitalism by helping each other. And I wondered, looking at the video game and sensing the dark and isolating landscapes: could the game be seen as an argument that we really need to be helping each other in the future, both through institutions, friendships and the “kindness of strangers”, as well?
On some level, yes, but I think that it’s a bit more complicated. The thing that I’m trying to talk about in Sick Woman Theory is that we are all already quite interdependent, but the interdependencies are happening in ways that either we don’t really notice or that could be better; the ways in which we are already enmeshed with each other. So helping out is not really the thing that I’m talking about. I’m trying to highlight how we’re just trying to show how things like a sense that you are alone, or a sense that you’re an individual, or a sense that you’re a sovereign kind of autonomous being, and you don’t need anything else, you don’t need anybody or any institution or any whatever that’s all part of the lie that capitalism perpetuates. I don’t think that we are alone or isolated. In fact, I think we’re like actually really, really deeply enmeshed, but there are these ways that we’ve been trained to value certain kinds of enmeshment over others; this kind of very old adage that if one of us is not free, none of us are.
This pandemic has really shown how some people have a certain amount of privilege, power and support in order to be isolated. For example, the people in prison during the pandemic are actually radically not isolated in a dangerous way, i.e. them being incarcerated adds to their risk of getting and spreading COVID. It’s because they actually can’t self isolate. So I think part of this, for me, is this interesting dilemma of wanting to feel solidarity; of wanting to belong and be part of a community. And also the truth that we are already all part of a community. It just might not be the one that we like, or it might not be doing the things that we agree with, and yet we are still participating in it. And so, I think, there’s some kind of paradox always in mystical experiences, or these sort of fantasies of collectivity, which is that in order to really feel that you’re part of something bigger than yourself, whether that’s the divine or a cause, you also have to feel the limits of your own body; of your own subjectivity and own experience. And this is a paradox because in order to feel this connection to a bigger thing, you also have to feel these limits. I don’t know how we get around that. I think that there’s something about it that maybe can’t be dismissed.
Is there an artist or a musician you think that the world should know more about?
I really loved this poetry book Life on Mars by the poet Tracy K. Smith. One of her poems was quoted in the piece. I was also reading the philosopher named Jason Bahbak Mohaghegh, whose focus is Middle Eastern Studies and who wrote a short text called Night: a Philosophy of the After-Dark. I really found that to be quite generative. Another book that I was reading while I was working on this, but that didn’t make it into the text corpus is a collection of short stories by a Korean writer, named Ha Seong-nan, it’s called Flowers of Mold. And it’s like horror, Gothic, creepy, eerie, short fiction, but done in a way where the circumstances are quite mundane. I’m also a huge fan of Mariana Enriquez, Argentine short story writer, who ostensibly writes supernatural horror fiction, but all of the menacing evils in her stories end up having a political origin and social cause. Her latest book is called The Dangers of Smoking in Bed.
I wanted to know your thoughts on accessibility, people’s access to the arts, and about technology.
Technology, as we think of it today is your phone and the internet. Ten years ago, it was, say, a tablet and social media. Twenty years ago, it was an internet connection that could run faster than before. When I was born, it was the invention of a desktop computer, a computer that didn’t take up the entire room. But fifty years ago, it was maybe the TV or a VCR. But if you keep going back, there’s always technology, that at that time is considered the most innovative new thing. And if you keep going back writing itself is a form of technology. Race is a technology: in America, the enslaved Africans working in the fields were a technology.
In my day job, I work in an open source software project, and we think a lot about how technologies come embedded with values and ethics in them. Technology is a tool, like anything else, photography was the technology at some point. And when a group of people build something that’s meant to have a use value as a tool, they embed that tool with what they think it should do, and that means that all of these kinds of sense of ethics and values and purposes get embedded in the product: technology is never neutral, you see?
So, as we can see in the pandemic, yes, technology has been used to supplement ways of being together. But it’s also been used to keep us apart. I mean, there’s lots of stuff around accessibility from a disabled perspective, that has been going horribly wrong for decades. It’s very appalling to me that we have been in a pandemic, and the majority of the world is going through a lived experience the disabled community has gone through for their entire lives, and we’re still not talking about the disabled community. We’re still talking about “a virus that only kills the elderly and the chronically ill”, like, as if that’s okay, as if that somehow diminishes it as a threat. The other thing that’s happening in Glut is that I wanted to work with AI. I wanted to make vocal clones, but all of the proprietary vocal clone softwares that you can buy, signing up for $30 a month to make your own vocal clone, all of them in their terms and conditions, have a clause that says they can sell your voice data to governments, corporations, etc. So this is the thing about technology is that it comes embedded with a lot of actual material consequences that we don’t necessarily see.
Practically speaking, I knew that the physical installation of Glut was not going to be accessible to a great many people. It’s not wheelchair accessible in the physical form at the museum in Berlin, and it’s also not accessible for people who are immunosuppressed in terms of COVID considerations. It’s also not accessible for anyone with claustrophobia. Shape the arts organisation was incredible, because they worked with me to create an accessible version of the piece: we ended up with the video game.
These kinds of multiple points of entry, I think, are what the heart of accessibility is about; that there’s not just one real way of experiencing something, there are like lots of different ways. That’s part of the idea behind having a digital version, that will just be up forever, that anybody can download it and play it if they want to. And if they don’t want to download and play it, they can watch a video of it, or they can read the text description. So there are these different ways in which people can engage with it.
I’m so glad that I got to collaborate with so many amazing people to make this thing real. Hot Knife are the development firm that that made the game. Jessika Khazrik was the person that I worked with on the sound: we worked together to train these vocal clones and deceive the software and work on the score together. I was really lucky to have a couple of different people meet with me to talk about AI and the politics behind it, all these people are listed on the site. And then you had a spec list, like the architect of the actual physical installation, and he made all of the the surfaces. The way that the game looks is based on a series of 3D drawings that he made of different surface textures. So I just wanted to say that it’s my piece, but I’m really, really lucky that I was able to collaborate with so many amazing people. And Shape [London-based arts charity] really did support that, because they funded all the accessibility features, including the sign language interpreters and the website. I’m really grateful to them.
Johanna Hedva (they/them) is a Korean-American writer, artist, musician, and astrologer, who was raised in Los Angeles by a family of witches and now lives between LA and Berlin. Hedva is the author of Minerva the Miscarriage of the Brain (Sming Sming/Wolfman 2020), a collection of poems, performances, and essays, and the novel On Hell (Sator/Two Dollar Radio 2018). Their essay, ‘Sick Woman Theory,’ published in 2016 in Mask, has been translated into ten languages. Image TOP: screenshot from a clip of gameplay from GLUT, a glowing tumour with one leg drags itself through an environment of nesting black holes, intestinal tunnels, glittering caves and oceans of black water.