Matti Kallioinen

Milliken Gallery

Ever heard of “strange loops”? Well, you can understand this term the hard way—via mathematical concepts, specifically Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems—or the easy way, as a version of the question, Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Strange loops, in other words, are paradoxes: tangled hierarchical systems that, as you move through them, inevitably bring you back to where you began. This Möbius-like construct is the inspiration for Matti Kallioinen’s exhibition “Intelligence.” The artist has gained deserved attention lately, but if in past exhibitions affinities with Karl Holmqvist’s subculture fetish, the mysticism of Carl Michael von Hausswolff, or even the Dadaist tastes of John Bock were evident, this time Kallioinen is on his own. As he once told critic Peter Cornell: “Art for me is playing. I would rather play when producing art. . . . Playing is about locating power, defining limits, determining what it is possible to say, do or think.” Play is Kallioinen’s technique; he endeavors to turn consciousness inside out, and in doing so he invites you to wonder about the limits of human experience. In the case of the strange loop, Kallioinen has a grip on his subject thanks to his close study of the work of Douglas Hofstadter, the cognitive scientist who wrote I Am a Strange Loop (2007). Hofstadter makes such challenging ideas more accessible and broadly relevant, writing in his book that “the strange loop characterization of our essences gives us a deeper and subtler vision of what it is to be human.” Hofstadter describes consciousness, human intelligence, and creativity as an endless chain of self-reference, and the strange loop provides the metaphor for such a system. You don’t necessarily need Hofstadter as a guide to Kallioinen, but he helps.

Upon entering the gallery, a wall-size video projection, titled Transhuman Circuit/Turing Battle (all works 2009) confronts you, but let’s take that up later; behind that wall is Intelligence, a large, dusky room Kallioinen has created as a “home” for hallucinations. The splendor of a hallucination might be measured by how indescribable the experience of it is. Here goes. The lighting, along with a smoke machine, is there to create shrouds of mystery, and the synthesized sci-fi music sounds like an organ-and-Theremin fusion. Campy? You bet. But then there are the gargantuan black floating and looping creatures—let’s call them quasi anthropomorphic, with “arms” and “legs” looping back into the trunk on the body. Passing around one of these “looping creatures” with blinking “eyes,” you must bend reverently to step through the “legs” of a second, and into the company of ten more. The loops droop, then unexpectedly rouse themselves, floating up in an animated consciousness until their blazing eyes dim and they wilt back into robot sleep. Others subsequently resuscitate, and after a while you realize that the lights, smoke, and music cue the loops’ descents and resurrections, materializing a pattern.

And the result? Pretty much as Hofstadter suggested: You depart this hallucination from where you entered it, between a loop’s “legs,” with a deeper and subtler sense of what it is to be human, even wondering what “experience” might mean for robots. And you’ve had fun along the way, because with Intelligence Kallioinen swings wide the door to experiencing play. Which brings me back to Transhuman Circuit/Turing Battle (reference: Alan Turing). It’s the account of some looplike creatures meeting, playing “rock-paper-scissors” (another exemplar of the strange loop), and doing other mysterious things, like chanting in a ceremonial circle out in the woods. The problem is that the experience with the animated 3-D loops is so absorbing that it makes the video project seem extraneous. This is less criticism than a lesson learned: Wondering what constitutes experience—human or otherwise—is best done in the first, not the third, person.

Ronald Jones