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Viktor Timofeev, Four Characters in Search of a Random Exit, 2017, two-channel digital video, color, sound, indefinite duration.

Viktor Timofeev, Four Characters in Search of a Random Exit, 2017, two-channel digital video, color, sound, indefinite duration.

Viktor Timofeev

Viktor Timofeev, Four Characters in Search of a Random Exit, 2017, two-channel digital video, color, sound, indefinite duration.

Viktor Timofeev’s solo exhibition “Stairway to Melon” drew the viewer into the complex system of its own obscure inner logic. The Latvian-born, New York–based artist divided the gallery into two distinct spaces: He left the entry area blank white and transformed the rest into a sort of waiting room whose olive-green wallpaper was hung with paintings; on the carpeted floor, several folding chairs had been pushed to the walls or arranged in a circle. The scene looked like a stage set, but two monitors turned away from the viewer to face the back of the space encouraged visitors to enter the stage to see what was on the screen. And there was a further twist: When watching the video, the viewer could be observed from behind by other visitors sitting on the chairs pushed to the wall.

This inverted logic of observer and observed, subject and object, was replicated in the two-channel video itself, whose title, Four Characters in Search of a Random Exit (all works 2017), obviously alludes to Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921). The video is in fact a programmed, noninteractive, self-playing game whose “user” becomes an immobile viewer of the frustrating Sisyphean efforts of four humanoid characters, all identical in appearance, dealing with obstacles in their separate realities. No clear logic determines the actions of the virtual characters—why one of them keeps seeing a maze of walls ahead, or another keeps chasing smaller versions of itself. Yet their repetitive movements and ritual-like actions seem choreographed. Without being able to intervene in the hermetic self-generative game, the viewer might begin to feel some empathy for these absurd artificial creatures. One screen presents all of this from an objective, outside perspective—giving us a sort of God’s-eye view. The other shows what the protagonists see and experience, which is not visible and simply doesn’t exist from the external point of view. Distinct realities occupy the same space, just as they do in the exhibition room itself.

Video games are typically based on reductive input-response and reward schemes, which they share with most approaches to artificial intelligence. In a fictional research paper, “DipMind Labs,” a few copies of which had been left as if casually on some of the chairs, Timofeev parodies actual research on AI conducted by Google’s DeepMind Lab. He proposes “to study how autonomous artificial agents may tackle complex problems in large, dynamic, partially observed, visually diverse, logically ambiguous and periodically chaotic worlds” and offers an understanding of consciousness as an unpredictable, irrational, forgetful, embodied entity. Instead of a method of learning, Timofeev proposes unlearning. In place of rule-following zombies, he proposes dancers.

The theme of the relationship of consciousness to the body was further developed in the four grisaille paintings on view, whose imagery evoked the five senses. Like the exhibition as a whole, each was titled Stairway to Melon, after the name of one of the levels of a game DeepMind Lab designed to test the capacities of artificial intelligences by pitting them against each other. The paintings depict mazelike spaces, familiar and alien, mathematically rigid and irrational at the same time. Those spaces are collisions of objective and subjective realities, thought and body, infinite possibilities of digital worlds and physical limits of the real. They are spaces for unlearning our established and rigid notions of consciousness, allowing us to dip our minds into irrationality, uncertainty, and ambiguity.

Neringa Černiauskaite