This text was commissioned for Arjan Guerrero’s ‘New New New World’ (5 April — 21 April 2023) exhibition at Somers Gallery, London, curated by Karla Noguez.
In the beginning, Command-Z Undo. Command-Shift-Z Redo. Everything was in suspense, all motionless and empty in the expanse of heaven. Not yet a man person, nor an animal, birds, fish, crabs, trees, stones, caves, ravines, grasses or forests. Only the sky existed. The face of the earth had not yet appeared. Command-A Select All. Command-X Cut. Raging ocean that covered everything was engulfed in total darkness. “Let there be light” — and light appeared. He They separated the light from the darkness, and he they named the light ‘Day’ and the darkness ‘Night’. Command-S Save. File-name = ‘New Layer’.
Separated by the Atlantic though they are, the creation mythologies of the K’iche’ people — of Guatemala’s central highlands — and the Christian Catholics — who headquartered their theology in the enclaved Vatican city state — share recognisable properties. Principally, they describe ex nihilo (or from nothing) processes. Unlike the observed natural world, these theological perspectives suppose a sequence of segmented actions that result from an individual or collection of authors, and carry with them metaphysical properties informing a wider worldview. Alternatively, a geological position understands the interconnected influences of unthinking materials whose simultaneous actions are defined by their properties in relation to one another. Rivers cutting away mountains; mountains forming from tectonic plates; plates moved by heat; heat produced by radioactive processes within the planet’s interior; etc, all atoms colliding with atoms. In this regard, the instigations of God, Tepeu and Gucumatz resemble a chain of Adobe Photoshop commands far more than the deep-time unconformities discovered by James Hutton in 1788.
Worldbuilding as an act of god and an artistic endeavour is bound by a process of layering. For the Christian this comprises six days of activity and one of rest; for the K’iche’ it was meditation, dialogue and hurricanes. Both narratives are restricted by their form, written or oral transference necessitating that one action follows another and consequently implying a hierarchy in the way the world is ordered. Equally the contemporary digital artist is bound to build their world in an ordered fashion, one command following the other and being guided by the customs of the software. Yet a pronounced difference remains, gods cannot roll back their actions — each move is divine and unquestionable — whilst in computer aided design the option to Cmd-Z is ever present.
Command-Shift-J New Layer from Cut. Let the void be filled. May this water withdraw. May the earth arise and be affirmed. Command-Shift N New Layer with Window Options. Name = ‘New Layer #2’. Opacity = 75%. OK. Like the mist was the creation, when mountains arose from the water. Command-T Transform. Enter. Let the water below the sky come together in one place, so that the land will appear. Command-G Group Layers. Command-E Merge Selected Layer Down.
Essential to the New World colonial programme Tequitqui art originated from a dual-function: facilitating an aesthetic branch of cultural conversion, and making use of the artisanal labour available to the Dominican and Franciscan friars. Emerging in the 16th century — though only coined by the Mexico based Spanish poet José Moreno Villa in 1942 — the style blurred together European architectural and decorative norms in accordance with the techniques and cosmovision of the conquered populations. Churches and convents in the colonised regions became adorned with hybridised Christian imagery. Facade reliefs, atrial crosses and sculptures depicted the biblical passages requested by the friars, yet infused with motifs specific to the Mexicas civilisations: water serpents representing Tlaloc, conch shells denoting fertility, the eagle as emblem of the Sun. The rapid need to expand colonial control may have resulted in a relaxation of censorship, permitting the artisans to defiantly ensure their cultural roots meshed with the newly imposed theology.
Contemporaneously, an echo of this effect continues with the technological export of tools and standards from Western centres of power to the Global Majority. It is noticeable in the misuse of software and hardware, modes of intentional ‘bad behaviour,’ where the user treats the tech as a malleable medium rather than a strict set of instructions. We call it hacking — it also constitutes bootlegging and all manner of pirate practices which liberate tools from the strict enclosure of IP regulation.
Command-0 Fit Image on Screen. The work was perfected, when they executed it after thinking and meditating on its ending. Command-H View Extras. God looked at everything he they had made, and he was they were pleased. Command-W Close File.
Extrapolate the coloniser/colonised relations to the 20th and 21st century and we find the digitisation of master/slave command constructions. Indicating an asymmetrical control-based relationship between a device or process (the ‘master’) and secondary devices or processes (the ‘slave/slaves’), the terminology is rooted in engineering (in a 2007 paper, Dr Ron Eglash traces an early instance to the invention of a sidereal clock in 1904) but became more broadly understood via its adoption within the computing sector. You may have accidentally read those triggering partnered terms when booting up a computer in the 1990s. We may begin to see the parallel between the Franciscan friar as ‘master’ script and indigenous artisan with ‘slave’ code, though the deeper resemblance is found between the wetware + software dependencies we are currently forming.
Recent popularisation of AI styled services (ChatGPT, DALL-E, Stable Diffusion, BigGAN, etc) position the artist within the friar’s sandals. Characteristic of these creative partnerships is a faulty form of dialogue that features an incremental adjustment of language construction to generate the desired results. Inputting a sentence fragment to DALL-E may not return the desired results the first time, so we calibrate and refresh. Guides and forums on how to write prompts for ChatGPT have rapidly expanded, suggesting a new formulation of English that bridges between the human and AI needs. With a short imaginative leap, we can imagine Tequitqui art as having been born from the serendipitous potential of miscommunication, the Mexicas embellishments surprising and pleasing the friar, registering as a positive reinforcement of his Christian colonial worldbuilding. We too share the fault of finding pleasure in a creativity that is outsourced to minds whose perspective we cannot align ourselves with. Our inability to think like the code contributes to an authorial misappropriation.
The Spanish conquest of the Mexicas Empire was completed in 1521, the hybridised Tequitqui art following thereafter. It took over 400 years to recognise it as a distinct genre representing an indigenous culture’s intellectual survival through a period of conquest, plague (cocoliztli is estimated to have killed around 80% of the population) and near absolute socio-political transformation. Our current eagerness to harness AI creativity needs matching with a deep conceptual debate on the politics and cognitions involved. An astral projection 400 years into our future, asking how we will retrospectively see this cohabitation.
Postscript A: As a means of debating cultural hybridisation and reflecting colonial history, this text contains edited fragments of two religious texts: 1) The Bible: Genesis Book 1 (Good News Translation); and 2) the Popol Vuh. Las antiguas historias del Quiché, translated from K’iche’ into Spanish by Andrián Recinos [and translated from Spanish into English by Google Translate]. Using the formal language of computer commands, Christian language fragments are constructed atop K’iche’ creation myths, to imply modern cycles of colonial imposition.
Postscript B: By coincidence, we wrote this essay over the first weekend of Semana Santa whilst visiting Santiago de Compostela, capital of the Galicia region of Spain and end point of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. Obscuring the relevance of this city would be a disservice — on our first night we followed the Procession of Our Lady of Sorrow through the Archcathedral Basilica; the following day we wandered the city’s many churches; and on Palm Sunday we attended mass. Denying the grandeur or sanctity of the faith would be a mistake and we see this writing as a consideration of combinational efforts, as much as it is a comment on costs inflicted.
By Pita Arreola-Burns and Elliott Burns (Off Site Project).