Since her momentous breakthrough feature debut La Ciénaga, writer-director Lucrecia Martel has thrillingly and insightfully reinvented and recombined sound and image into disarming and often disturbing new forms. At their respective peaks, each of Martel’s four fraught psychological dramas verge on the non-realist, and in certain memorable, spectacular sequences they challenge their unsuspecting viewer.
In one short film, Pescados (2010), murmuring carp cry upward beyond the fourth wall. In another, Muta (2011), bodies of Amazonian Miu Miu models contort monstrously as designer handbags quiver like flesh and martini glasses are filled to their brim with bleach. In her most recent short work AI, Martel once more explores agency and uneasy subjectivity in an adventurous new way. Commissioned as the trailer for the 2019 Viennale and made between Argentina and Austria, Martel’s AI takes place in a self-consciously artificial, audiovisual representation of mental space, solely using a highly suggestive appropriation of archival footage to construct a post-human or non-human protagonist. A heavily-manipulated and abbreviated extract from a YouTube video (described in one of this cult object’s synopses as “a brief interview with a young man… who demonstrates negativism in a catatonic schizophrenic.”), Martel’s AI is imported, exported and rendered as if to resemble a horror film, intriguingly putting forward a potentially risky and provocative parallel between source material and subject matter.
Transformed from (apparently) non-fiction to the non-real, obstinately opaque, and running just 90 seconds, this elusive film and its thin two-letter title offer few clues and little contextual information to its viewer. Fortunately, AI’s benevolent creator Lucrecia Martel was happy to answer a handful of questions, via email, to demystify her extensive work on these existing images. As the filmmaker explains, the film is not the stuff of far-off sci-fi, nor is its speculative fiction all that absolutely or exactly dystopian.
“It is a video that is on YouTube, and it is very popular,” Martel says straightforwardly of her found footage. “The psychiatrist interviews a schizophrenic young man, according to the title of the video. The staging of the scene is very classical: the patient lies under the light, exposed, and the doctor in the shadows is only a voice.” Though in Martel’s work characters are routinely dismembered or decapitated, disembodied or kept off-screen—their physical presence separated from and out of sync with speech—AI directly and immediately immerses its viewer into one single space, framing its protagonist in close-up. Martel’s most apparent transformation of this footage, then, is squarely seen in AI’s images, a surface of pixelation added as means to obscure, and to perhaps suggest, visually and conceptually, an artificial intelligence’s computational processing of audio and visual data. “It is a very simple idea, it is the typical pixelation that is used to hide the identity of a witness, or of a minor,” says the director, “and the element of the single eye, with the two voices, that’s a mythological touch.”
A more subtle manipulation is heard throughout the film’s sophisticated sound design, a hugely repercussive consolidation of voices (those of both patient and psychiatrist) in which “the dialogue could be an internal monologue,” notes Martel. “And in this monologue the doctor represents the madness. This is artificial intelligence in the sense of a consciousness without an individual.” This significant reconfiguration of these elements—the shift from dialogue to monologue, diagnostic evaluation to introspective self-examination, and exterior object to interior subject—is, in relation to such sensitive source material, especially subversive. Where in Martel’s feature films existential threats often remain implied and persistent on each film’s periphery, in AI such antagonism is internalized, both psychiatrist and patient, object-thing and I-subject, combined in the crop of this compressed and condensed film’s containing frame. In the film’s final line of dialogue, AI’s talking head asks and answers to itself: “What is it you’re trying to do with your life? Play the piano for people.” As this self-questioning, thinking machine reaches sentience, a meta-level of awareness, the film’s audiovisual distortion then gives way to Martel’s select disruptions, flourishes and flashes of snippets of many different (YouTube) videos appear as if a dysfunction in the machine’s data set, or algorithmically-generated hallucinations.
Self-consciousness is introduced, and as AI’s protagonist recognizes their desires and their subsequent subjective experience of reality, new images appear in the beguiling artificial space of the film. Martel offers just one clue: “This particular futuristic monster of the short film has melancholy not for music, but for hands.” Mourning their phantom limbs, AI’s protagonist—consciousness without a body—is caught in symbolic limbo. On the topic of artificial intelligence and creativity, Martel shares: “Machines are the next stage of our species. It seems to me that what can be extinguished is the individual. I don't see any threat to beauty and happiness in this. I hope that in the future, art will not be a profession but a way of being. I don’t have to imagine automatons obeying sinister corporations, because we already have that today, but instead, organisms that will invent what is necessary to expand their possibilities. And that can be horrifying or it can be magnificent. Will these creatures be able to overcome our pettiness? The less similar they are to us, the more chances they will have.”
Neither optimistic nor overtly pessimistic, Martel’s view skirts any anthropocentrism and does not separate organisms from machines, two entities already in extremely close co-existence in contemporary life. Her thoughtful and tempered consideration of the contiguity between one and the other, then, allows us to inch toward a different, political interpretation of AI—a more nuanced, and perhaps more precise reading of what Martel’s film may be doing with such provocative source material and subject matter. In brief, we reach a far more interesting conclusion when the relationship between the former and the latter is considered in the terms of metaphor rather than binary analogy.
As is suggested by Martel and as is typical of non-realist fiction more generally, AI ought to be considered as much a reflection on contemporary humanity—and the worst of humanity’s impulse for dehumanization—as it is on any cultural fear of melancholy machines. Working with this interrogative scene of humiliation and fear—an “Evaluation for Diagnosis” shot at the University of California in 1961, in which a heavily-medicated young man has his sanity examined and questioned, his identity diminished—AI scrambles this source material to argue for dignity. Martel’s use of this found footage, then, is something restorative rather than exploitative, a motivated manipulation of existing images to subvert a lousy legacy of cultural depictions of schizophrenia, rerouting the oppressive dynamics of the institution, challenging psychiatry as an abusive or punitive practice that pathologizes difference, or induces compliance in actively disabling and removing its objects of study from society.
Whether sourcing auditory illusions to form the backbone of entire feature films, or taking in Lionel Messi’s greatest goals as a means of finding peace, Lucrecia Martel’s continued return to the rabbit hole of YouTube—a seemingly-limitless archive of existing material Martel has expressed interest in using in her filmmaking—continues to produce bold results. In 2017’s Zama—a 21st century adaptation of a first-person text written in the 20th century and set in the 18th—Martel sublimely emasculates and decenters the colonial icon of el corregidor into hyperreal absurd comedy. AI is another such example of adaptation as a form of criticism, a daringly designed film that introduces contemporary discourses and contexts into its text, restaging and challenging the sway such texts hold on constructions of “history” and “reality.”
With thanks to Benjamin Domenech, Brenda Erdei, Maureen Gueunet, Nathasha Orlando Kappler, Lucrecia Martel, and Fredi Themel.