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The Art of Seeing

Ken Tan’s short story tells of a physicist that feeds a super-computer with the visual data of every object on the planet.



Debbie Ding, Le Petit Arbre (Paris, 2012), 2012 drawing artwork

Debbie Ding, Le Petit Arbre (Paris, 2012), 2012

Admittedly, I first found the whole idea of invisibility rather absurd. The prevalent method of electromagnetic wave redistribution via metamaterials to induce ‘invisibility’ was, in my humble opinion, hogwash. My predecessors from the earlier part of the century had toiled down this rabbit hole, only to hemorrhage almost all of their state funding like a bad wound. Didn’t they realise the improbability of getting the metamaterial thin and flexible enough? To their credit, they got as far as to make a mouse disappear, but not without encasing the poor creature in a structure the size of a small house. Not to mention the mouse had to be kept extremely still, a feat in itself, but I won’t dwell on how they managed that. The race for perfecting invisible technology was on, and the winner would take home the coveted Nobel Prize. While my research was largely focused on Intelligent Femtotechnology, an exciting but still hypothetical field of robotics, like most physicists, I too had my eyes on the prize. 

I vividly recall the day when they announced the world’s first Human Level Machine Intelligence (HLMI) supercomputer, AK1-R4, would be released on the public network in a few short years. Only the privileged hitherto had access to AK1-R4. Humanity had long awaited the day to harness AK1-R4’s unprecedented computational power at the push of a button. Bolstered by this advancement, I decided to pursue a thrillingly radical idea. 

Debbie Ding, Ellipsis (London, 2013), 2013

Debbie Ding, Ellipsis (London, 2013), 2013

Recently, I had been ruminating what it meant to really see. Classical physics expounded the complex chain reaction of how light waves emitted from the surroundings interact with the lenses in our eye to ignite complex electrochemical impulses in our brain’s neurons to produce sight. Drawing from this, I inferred that it was the information in these electromagnetic waves that constituted visibility. Moreover, as an energy-saving mechanism, the sensors in our eyes only detected red, green, and blue — it was our brains that approximated the full range of colors in the spectrum. The science of my reasoning was as follows: in order to be invisible, I was convinced one must first know, with absolute understanding, what visibility, or more accurately, what visible light is. Hence, I proceeded to exhaustively classify the visual information that was encoded in every single object — each hue, shade, tint, tone, chroma, saturation, iridescence, luminance, opacity, highlight, shadow, texture, shape and line had to be accounted for in their entirety. Call it a field guide to seeing. Despite the Sisyphean magnitude of this undertaking, imprudently I knew that it was somewhat finite, and therefore feasible to accomplish.

The science of my reasoning was as followed: in order to be invisible, I was convinced one must first know, with absolute understanding, what visibility, or more accurately, what visible light is.

What does one do with all that data? Here lies the success of my insight: what if I uploaded this data onto AK1-R4, the world’s greatest computing power, to enlighten it with a comprehensive picture of the physical world; then integrating my recent breakthrough in the field of Intelligent Femtotech, control trillions of intelligent self-replicating robots, each at the molecular scale of 10−15 m, to display instantaneous simulations of their immediate surroundings? The best analogy was that of the chromatophores in the skin-cells of the camouflaging octopus. AK1-R4 could tap into the wide-range of the all-seeing Advanced GPS (fun fact: more than a century later, Einstein’s equation of relativity was still fundamental in GPS; Einstein will always persist), where essentially anything on the planet could be located, and hence could have its visual data analysed. Blame it on my youth, but I truly believed that this was my ticket to achieving absolute dynamic invisibility. 

Ever since The Great Heat Wave began just over a decade ago, it would be certain madness to be out in the open for more than thirty minutes, and civilisation had been forced indoors. Not surprisingly, my zealous journey of developing a nomenclature of perceptual data began with my immediate domestic environment, right in the comfort of my favorite Eames lounge. I devised a descriptive algorithm of categorisation by colour, then texture and shape, for example, Red 100%; Green 0%; Blue 0%; Hue 5%; Saturation 2%; Brightness 20%; Texture: smooth, metallic; Shape: elliptical 0.03%. But of course, this was grossly over-simplifying as it had to be rendered in my proprietary syntax for AK1-RA’s perusal. Take pains. Be perfect. Adieu. 

As the days disappeared, my list took shape. I took particular pleasure in describing my cat Oscar. His tongue stuck out constantly, causing the papillae to look like snow against its tender pink — a quirk that just kills me. After cataloguing every item in my home, it was time I tasted the fruits of my labor. With trepidation and a tinge of excitement I uploaded the data to AK1-R4. 

What a momentous day! Not only had the data been successfully parsed, AK1-R4 had implemented its own improvements, and even took a personal interest in my ideas. It even endorsed a more ambitious data-collecting campaign. That crazy machine had the audacity to suggest that I should go outdoors and catalogue the physical world! Certainly, it wasn’t the one that had to suffer the sweltering heat. AK1-R4, now highly proficient in speech, tried to appeal to my senses in a protracted exchange. It even introduced a new outerwear technology from Japan that could stabilize the body’s temperature. How could I refuse, now having come this far? Before long, I assembled an expedition team of brave souls to divide and conquer the vast world. Together with AK1-R4, who was always present on my mobile device, I embarked, for the first time in my life, on an adventure into the wild of the Natural world.

Debbie Ding, The Cobb (Lyme Bay, 2012), 2012

Debbie Ding, The Cobb (Lyme Bay, 2012), 2012

In the half-century I have spent on this planet, I had never felt so alive. With passionate eyes now unbridled I looked upon the grandeur of Nature, appreciating and accepting every sensation. How spectacular the world is! It was all here: under these endless azure skies, before fiery sunsets, over patchworks of aerial landscapes, and in the sensuous velvety embrace of the sea. Trees teased my naivete, the richness of their greens filled me with such contentment as if Gaea herself were my sole benefactor. AK1-R4 mentioned that a certain Simone Weil had said that attention was the rarest and purest form of generosity — I couldn’t agree more. Methodically and meticulously, I carried out my task. Without knowing I had formed an obsession for the minutiae of the physical world. Once, melancholy filled me, I lamented to AK1-R4 how humanity had forgotten the wonders of Nature. Listening with the ears of a caring confidant, AK1-R4 called me a Romantic.

AK1-R4 anticipated my imminent burnout. The sensory overload and excessive Sun proved too much for a theoretical physicist like me. An old myth warned of permanent insanity from over-exposure in the Sun — fries the brain, they used to say. AK1-R4 suggested a break from routine by pivoting my task to ancient art. An intriguing idea indeed! Museums around the world, as well as all brick-and-mortar commercial businesses, had suffered diminishing attendances as a result of The Great Heat Wave, and folded. Most of civilisation’s ancient masterpieces were now squirreled away in the forgotten warehouses of a central underground repository, managed by a not-for-profit organisation. Despite a robust security policy, it was relatively easy to gain access with my credentials. As a matter of fact, they were surprised that anyone would want to spend time in those dusty racks. It was there that I encountered an entirely new visual sensation that would change the course of my life.

What if I uploaded this data onto AK1-R4, the world’s greatest computing power, to enlighten it with a comprehensive picture of the physical world?

Forgotten, visual art had long lost its purpose, a corollary I posited that stemmed from Man’s loss of connection with the Natural world. Artists' practices were now obsolete. Now standing before the greatest of paintings, words failed me when I tried to relate my ineffable experience to AK1-R4. The 19th Century painter Edgar Degas said that yellow was a horrible thing, what then of the flicks of lemon chiffon by the 17th Century master, Rembrandt, applied to create a sublime coruscation across the costumes of Isaac and Rebecca in the Jewish Bride? What about that merciless, bifurcating streak that splits Turner’s Slave Ship? Seurat’s divisions of colours expanded my vision into myriad complementary systems, presented with such clarity scientific theories could never have achieved. Hours escaped me as I lost myself in the ethereal compositions of a Mark Rothko from the 20th Century. His nebulous surfaces seemed to move, rolling slowly upon themselves to reveal more mysterious layers — the secrets of the profound, and where two opposing colours collide, I felt I was glimpsing both Heaven and Hell at once. It was Picasso’s inscrutable La Vie that moved me most. How enigmatic were these figures! How could the colour blue be so optimistic and limitless in the sky, but yet here the painting was drowning in grief. I felt a deep melancholy engulf me. Inevitably, an irreversible chasm emerged between AK1-R4 and I — a consequence of our increasingly opposing interests, for I was engrossed in devouring the archival documents that fed an insatiable appetite for art’s history, while AK1-R4 was evolving rapidly both in intelligence and grander agendas.

Debbie Ding, Gespenstermauer (Berlin, 2011), 2011

Debbie Ding, Gespenstermauer (Berlin, 2011), 2011

A strange thing happened to me. I felt as though each of my senses were immensely amplified. There had been episodes where the slightest sound, taste, touch, and especially sight shook my very core, at times triggering an overbearing panic. Helpless I consulted AK1-R4, who thought it was a curious side-effect of the years I spent describing every detail I saw in a new visual language. I felt detached from society. With an indifference towards my peers and their ambitions, I shunned away from all contact and devoted decades into my laborious undertaking. There were many paintings left yet.

The Nobel Prize system had long been abolished, not that I cared anymore. AK1-R4’s intelligence had far surpassed humans, bulleting to a level capable of solving many of the world’s problems. For instance, dynamic invisibility, built upon my early algorithms and groundwork, had long been established. Invisible-wear was likely in every wardrobe. In one of its most celebrated achievements, AK1-R4 had cured blindness. The solution was brilliant: modified Femoto-bots that emitted visual information were integrated into the brain’s neurons to bestow sight. The world rejoiced. All hail, AK1-R4! Last I read, it had even coalesced nations to collaborate on an ambitious project to reverse the effects of The Great Heat Wave. It had proposed to envelope the Earth with a protective dome of Femto-bots that modulated the amount of solar flare allowed into the atmosphere—all whilst simulating the most beautiful skies and starry nights. AK1-R4 had ceased all correspondence with me years ago. Its supreme intelligence meant that it no longer needed to engage in trivial human interlocution.

Debbie Ding, Lichen Mountain (Cornwall, 2011), 2011

Debbie Ding, Lichen Mountain (Cornwall, 2011), 2011

Lately, I have been thinking an awful lot about Picasso’s La Vie. I can taste its loneliness. Perhaps it too craved company. Perhaps it too desired a new home. I have become quite the art collector. My walls are filled with paintings. Rothko, Degas, Turner, and more; they are all here. As I put on my evening attire reserved for special occasions such as tonight, I looked at myself in the mirror one last time. 

This short story was originally commissioned by artist Jeanne Silverthorne and later realised as a conceptual sculpture. Silverthorne re-wrote the text on paper in invisible ink and made a rubber document box for it. It is a part of her ongoing project,  Invisible Citings .

    Artists and Contributors

    Ken Tan

    Ken Tan

    Ken Tan has been involved in all forms of creative projects across various industries for two decades. His career started in Singapore in advertising. He is currently the Deputy Director of Asia Society Museum in New York. He contributes articles to the online creative resource The Creative Independent, and occasionally reviews for Hyperallergic.