World Without End: An audio-visual meditation on memory and AI mysticism

Newsletter on 5 May 2023

World Without End is the next in my series of voyages from the micro to the macro an AI’s latent space. It’s 3.5 minutes. If you can, please watch it uninterrupted with headphones.

About five years ago I received a tape in the post from my late godmother. It was a recording of a radio broadcast of choral evensong at Wakefield Cathedral on 12 September 1995. I'm one of the singers, aged nine.

There are probably a few other recordings around - in the BBC archives, on other tapes recorded off the radio. The memory of that moment is imprinted into materials and still echoing through time. Each medium, like my tape, makes imperfect copies, combining the event with its own material reality.

Between the age of 6 and 12 I sang as a treble chorister. Each week of the school term, we’d rehearse for about 5 hours and sing two services. It’s a union of education, work and cultural ritual that is hard to find in the secular world. The harmonies of sacred choral music are embedded deep within me.

My own memory is shaped very differently from the tape memory. The sounds on the tape resonate through me associatively. I’m back into the cathedral, smelling the incense, feeling the weight of the strange costume - cassock, surplus and ruff - and seeing the ever-animated face of the choirmaster conducting us.

The memory of the tape and of my mind both have their own topology, by which I mean they have a kind of shape in which some things are near to others. The tape is just organised by time. I can fast-forward and rewind. My mind is more of a web of experiences. I can barely remember it on demand, and yet an external cue like a sound or smell can dive me right into the middle of it.

The memories held within the AI model are different again. While ChatGPT is perhaps closer to the associative web of human memory, the StyleGAN model I’m using here has a very different feel. It places memories that look similar near each other without any notion of time or meaning. They are still my memories, because it’s trained exclusively on my own library of about 25,000 photos I’ve taken over the past 20 years.

Each of the three forms of memory are a kind of echo. Each reveal a different aspect of reality. Perhaps the tape is materialism, my memory is structured through consciousness, and StyleGAN captures a different kind of immaterial structure of the universe.

I’m reminded of that line from Alan Watts, “You are an aperture through which the universe is looking at and exploring itself.”

The title of this work came from the tape. You can hear it in the soundtrack. For me, it’s also fitting to the fractal shape of the universe that the visuals suggest.

Montreal, 5 May 2023