With the rise in prominence of Artificial Intelligence in society in recent years, the future of the very fundamentals of human consciousness and existence have been called into question. 1320Elements’ latest audio production offers a contemplative and story-led look at how we interact with the prospect of virtual immortality in the face of human extinction. Writer Michael Steven Clark delivers an engulfing narrative with a verve of awe-inducing worldbuilding as he invites us into a ‘post-anthropocene’ survey of the state of the Earth, humanity, intelligence, and life.
The piece is performed entirely by AI voices, which at first feel un-nerving. Early in the piece you’re left wondering how it will feel to continue listening to the uncanny valley-esque intonance for the entire 45 minutes. However, I was pleasantly, and somewhat hauntingly, surprised by how easily I sunk into the rhythmic repetition of tone and expression from the main narrator character Jouliette. Jouliette is the AI assistant to one of the last remaining intelligent humans, Miss Delia, who lives atop Pic du Midi in the remains of the French Alps. The world outside the observatory is rugged and uncaring, while the inside flourishes and teems with life and intrigue. This works as a wonderful metaphor for the piece, and the journey that Jouliette and Miss Delia embark upon.
Jouliette begins by taking us on a tour of the ruins of the world with lyrical observance and repeated reference to her master’s academic interest in the decomposing and re-composing ecosystems of their post-apocalyptic surroundings. The worldbuilding is masterfully done here, and with a light touch we are introduced to the new ecologies that dominate the world. Brazil has become an ocean inhabited by sharks, while a new form of primitive humanity emerges to the curiosity of Miss Delia, and her network of fellow intelligent observers connected to one another by decaying satellites that orbit the world. It struck me how intuitive an analogy this world was for our own emerging interactions with AI – the primitive form that AI takes in our own world reflects onto the humans of this one, while the near-supernatural intelligence of the AI in the piece are possessed by an intense curiosity of how the primitive humans interact with the physical world and how it sparks emotion.
Miss Delia becomes aware of artificially intelligent probes that pose a deep risk to the future of her own kind soon into the piece, and this sets into motion a series of events which see one of the humans knocking at Miss Delia’s own door. As the primitive human, Minala, begins to interact with artificial intelligence, the barriers of mortality are irreversibly crossed, and uncertain futures become conscious realities quick enough. It’s hard to express without hearing the piece just how engrossing and all encompassing the worldbuilding in this piece is. Clark’s script doesn’t expect too much of its audience – expressing and explaining each little detail in turn – yet you feel in every minute that you’re uncovering something inquisitive and intrepid in the interactions between intelligence, biology, and machine.
The poetic and almost academic language of the piece could have proved to have been one of its more alienating aspects. While at points it can feel a little indulgent, we’re consistently reminded that this story is being told from the perspective of an AI, and as such we are expected to engage with the language as if it was being written un-emotively. This creates a gorgeously winding paradox that threads through the middle of the piece – the artificial lives here seek authenticity in a world where it can only be achieved by the Stone Age primates they observe. This speaks to the expressive nature of the piece, which doesn’t seek to convey a particular message or cautionary tale about AI, instead explore and unpick the relationship between artificiality and mortality with style and deeply-formed narrative mechanisma.
The arcs of the characters throughout are duly thought through, allowing an arms-length connection because of their bizarre nature existing so deep into the future that their wants and needs are not always clear to us. There is a great sense of conscious empathy for the characters that is apparent in the writing – their unusual positions in life and unlife still treated as a fleeting apparition of the universe, and this allows Clark’s script to bind itself with a fantastic sense of exploration into meaning. This is complimented by the clear passion for telling this story and uncovering this existential moment that is built into the narrative. References to Nietzsche and the Manchester Baby flow naturally within it, and show just how profound the production team are willing to go to tackle this topic.
My reservations come in wondering about the boundaries of the form for this story. Most of the story is told through Jouliette’s voice and the interruptions from other characters are somewhat jarring. This could be utilised a little more as it felt more like an afterthought to diversify the piece’s tone rather than instil something greater in the storytelling. Equally some of the production of the AI voices left a little to be desired in places, with diction and enunciation of some words leaving you questioning what you had just heard. This is such a rich and bountiful story-world, and I think it deserves the chance to be explored more as a back-and-forth interaction between humanity and artificiality, whereas right now it remains bound up in that AI spectrum only. This, however, raises impactful and interesting questions about the future of performance in turn, which was wonderful to pontificate over once the piece had concluded.
The curated selection of found footage and images in the piece works fine – there isn’t much special to say about them as they act more as a compliment to the piece rather than an integral part. It would be lovely to see this story takes a form that breaks that visual boundary and explores that, if it is within the interest of its creators. Given the piece’s reference to singing as an essential part of human consciousness, I wondered why there wasn’t any implementation of singing as an artistic touch – this too could be explored to make the piece more well-rounded.
My final commendations go to the score, which thankfully is human produced (when initially hearing the piece, I had wondered how deep into the rabbit-hole 1320Elements had gone, and I think AI music may have been a step across the barricade into a brave new world). Cameron Clark’s score grapples with the cinematic quality of the story without ever losing the human touches that serrate its emotive path. The true magnificence of this story comes in how gracefully, poignantly, and intrepidly it grapples with the boundaries of consciousness, and how it does so in such an inviting way. This flows through into almost all elements of production, and leaves you with a palpable sense of contemplation and curiosity as it finishes.
Recommended Drink: I asked ChatGPT what cocktail would best go with an audio play about a future Earth where primitive humans interacted with intelligent AI, and it came up with the ‘Cyberpunk Elixir’ – “The Cyberpunk Elixir combines the futuristic blue color of the curaçao with the elegant and slightly floral notes of elderflower liqueur.”