This is a photo taken in 1990 by Voyager 1 as it left the solar system. The tiny dot, the “pale blue dot” as it is known, is Earth. Carl Sagan presented this image as evidence of our tiny scale in the vast universe. We are really, really, really small. This is us. You are here.
This sense of scale changes our perspective in fundamental ways. Astronauts are said to call it the “overview effect” - a cognitive shift in awareness during spaceflight, often while viewing the Earth from orbit. It refers to the experience of seeing firsthand the fragile ball of life, “hanging in the void”. Astronauts claim national boundaries vanish, conflicts become less important, and the need to protect this “pale blue dot” becomes both obvious and imperative. Douglas Adams, in his comic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novels, turns this concept on its head.
Our smallness - our insignificance - is so overwhelming it becomes a form of torture. Upon entering a small chamber called the “Total Perspective Vortex”, a model of the entire universe is displayed with a microscopic dot bearing the legend “you are here”, and the victims’ minds are immediately destroyed. This is a vastness not only of space, but also time. Humanity’s entire existence is a mere blink of an eye on a cosmic time scale. We are impermanent. I have something less like torture in mind, but I do want to ask the question of what this sense of scale--of vastness of time and space--means for art on our pale blue dot.
My name is Ashley Zelinskie and I am an artist that sometimes feels the size of a pixel, which may sound arrogant now that we have seen the pale blue dot. Once you come to terms with your scale what does that mean for your art? What if we were to make art that is not for us here and now? What if we were to make art for the future? Each of these pieces were made for computers that will outlast their makers; for the technology that may someday supplant humanity.
If we are small and impermanent, what is vast and permanent? Mathematics. And what do we know today that speaks the language of mathematics? Computers. This is art for the singularity.
If someday we are gone and only computers survive how do we transmit our human heritage to a universe built on mathematics? My work strives to answer that question. By drawing my inspiration from historical ideas and icons I am coding the essence of humanity into works of art.
Ashley Zelinskie is Brooklyn-based conceptual artist working at the intersection of art, technology and mathematics. Her works span a variety of media, from large- and small-scale sculpture to canvas and print works, each created using cutting edge technology such as 3D printing and computer-guided laser cutting. Her work focuses on visualizing data in abstract forms and finding new and interesting ways to describe complex ideas.
Ashley’s work has been featured by Vice, Brooklyn Magazine, the New York Times and Hyperallergic. Her work forms part of the permanent collection of the US Department of State Art in Embassies Program and has recently been exhibited at Sotheby’s New York. Ashley is a former resident of New Inc.—the New Museum’s Art and Technology Incubator—and currently working in collaboration with NASA. She is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design.
This work is not for us. It is for the future. And robots. That is, each of these pieces takes for granted that computers will outlast their makers, that technology will supplant humanity, and that craft should follow suit. This is art for the Singularity. Today, rigorous science and pure math maintain unbridled influence over technology – as such, our digital heirs are slated to inherit nuanced programming and breathtaking technical specifications. Yet we would render a profound disservice by stopping at numeracy and wire: if the Earth need be handed over to machines, we must prepare them not only to be accurate and efficient, but also cultured. Robots need magic. With regard to information density, the mosaic of human social interaction and artistic endeavor is unrivaled in diversity, ambition and depth. We are bound by duty to pass culture forward yet remain constrained by limitations: how can we sufficiently communicate this history and dialog to unknown, unimaginable and unspecified replacements? This work is an attempt to answer that question and, in fact, to begin that process – the process of translating our vast artistic and social history, in familiar language and appropriate media, to machines. Using simple code, recursive structures, redundant patterns, and emergent media in novel combinations, this work transcribes humanity – for a future without it.