Strange Loops explores the future of man and machine

X&Y, Science Museum, dress rehearsal 9 October 2013 Marcus du Sautoy Victoria Gould Commissioned by Ali Fraser

The Barbican’s season of projects for 2019, known as Life Rewired, is still just getting started.

Daria Martin’s Tonight the World kicked things off at the end of January but, the newest series of events and installations, Strange Loops, will be turning everything up a notch.

The fast approaching project will try to explore the year’s theme of what it means to be human when technology is changing everything.

It is a hefty collaboration between mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, musician Mahan Esfahani, composer Robert Thomas, visual artist Ben Kreukniet, and performer Victoria Gould. It’s just about as multidisciplinary as it gets. Throughout most of March, the team will use musical, visual and theatrical ‘strange loops’ to explore human nature and whether a machine can become conscious or creative.

It will leave audiences wondering what distinguishes human and machine – and questioning what makes us so special.

The entire project is based on Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid; a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Douglas Hofstadter which celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2019.

The book is about the common themes in the lives and works of logician Kurt Gödel, artist MC Escher and composer Johann Sebastian Bach.

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The algorithmic installation, Behind a Facade of Order by Ben Kreukniet, might just make you go cross-eyed

In his books, Hofstadter examines the concept of a strange loop to explain consciousness and the sense of ‘I’. A strange loop is a hierarchy of levels, each of which is linked to at least one other.

A strange loop hierarchy is tangled, in that there is no well-defined highest or lowest level. Moving through the levels, one eventually returns to the starting point.

Strange Loops launches on 9 March with a ‘performance lecture’ entitled The Eternal Golden Braid on Artificial Intelligence and the Arts.

Mathematician Marcus du Sautoy runs the show with the help of harpsichordist (a person who plays a really old piano that Baroque composers used) Mahan Esfahani and composer Robert Thomas.

Together they guide the audience through the extraordinary architecture of Bach’s work, exploring the paradoxical world of Escher while introducing the elusive logical ideas of Gödel.

Yes, this seems intense, but bear with them. This won’t be too intellectual for us regular folk to comprehend. It is worth remembering that the point of this performative lecture is to somewhat confuse viewers; to make them question what they think they believe to be absolute truths.

Bach’s work has always been considered very mathematical, but is it possible to algorithmically generate music that convinces an audience that it is in fact composed by Bach and not a machine?

The second event in the series is an algorithmic installation called Behind a Facade of Order.

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X&Y, Marcus du Sautoy and Victoria Gould, commissioned by Ali Fraser (Science Museum)

Inspired by the self-referential, the infinite, and the nature of illusion, this installation by Ben Kreukniet creates a complex digital world of feedback loops and visual paradox, building a tangled hierarchy between human, machine and architecture.

The final chapter in this project is a theatrical performance called I a Strange Loop featuring mathematicians and actors Marcus du Sautoy and Victoria Gould.

This two-hander is an intriguing take on mortality, consciousness and artificial life.

Alone in a cube that glows in the darkness, X is content with his infinite universe and abstract thought. But then Y appears, insisting they interact, exposing him to her sensory and physical existence.

Each begins to hanker after what the other has until a remarkable thing happens… involving a strange loop.

Strange Loops will certainly confuse audiences. But that is the point; it is engineered to be disruptive and is intended to make you think in a different way, to question what you believe to be normal, and to make you re-evaluate what it means to be human.

The Strange Loops series will run from 9-23 March at the Barbican Centre.

Lead Image by Benjamin Ealovega (Science Museum)