My third book, ´Conversations on Gentrification´ is now available for purchase.
You can order the book here
My second book, There is no such thing as Boston: gentrification and the disappearance of a city is now available for purchase.
To purchase, click here
Purchase book here
This a short film I wrote and directed, a documentary piece entitled Voices
The following is an interview I did today with Tom Hayes on his show “Upbeat with Tome Hayes.” Talking about several topics relating to the essays that have been posted on this site thus far.
Link is to interview is here
Full link: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/tjhayes/2015/07/15/upbeat-w-tom-hayes-and-brian-culkin
I am currently in the process of directing a film on boxing. 24 to Heaven, is a look at the breakdown of boxing in urban America. Namely the rupturing of the factory system and its related structures in the wake of World War 2 and the urban crisis that followed suit. These blogs are also the rough drafts of a book, a collection of essays, ‘Postscript on Boxing’ I will be releasing with the film. This specific chapter of the book, chapter 7, is a collection of my boxing photography, a few of those pictures I included on this blog.
The image is violent because what happens there is the murder of the Real, the vanishing point of Reality.
| Jean Baudrillard |
Part of this text, as the reader will see upon completion of this chapter, is a small sample of my boxing photography I have captured over the course of producing this work. So from that artistic viewpoint, independent of the boxing theory I have thus developed, I can most appropriately characterize photography centering upon the contemporary boxing community as creative work that centers around the documentation of a collective last rights ceremony where the sick, the living and breathing authentic boxing community, is not fully aware of its terminal condition. In a certain sense, the boxing community does in fact recognize something amiss — uncomfortably aware that some part of its system is clearly afflicted with a social disease — however, it has not yet come to terms with the ramifications or meaning behind the overwhelming dysfunction. So this awkward relationship I have often found myself in, between artist and boxing subject, ultimately puts the artist in the most uncomfortable of positions. For the artist’s task is to chronicle a way of life that is simultaneously dying, as its sick are partially oblivious to the very fact of their sentence, while at the same time trying to aesthetically covey the force of its powerful Life. The juxtaposition we find in a local boxing gym is hard to fully comprehend: a dying and disintegrating community filled with Life.
But this is the very dynamic that underlines what is central to the cultural obliteration of boxing in a digital era – a sport that found its significance on the intersection of mechanical modes of production and urban life – that is proving to be an insurmountable foe to the sport: the contemporary crisis of reality itself, the crisis of the human body; a crisis brought forth into the fold from the overwhelming power of the global media, the continued virtualization of the economy, and the hyper gentrification of American cities. What remains of boxing today is either the residue from the past or, as we are now finding in the presence of “yuppy boxing gyms” — non authentic gyms that cater not to developing legitimate prizefighters, but as an exercise method for professional workers — as a reactionary strategy undertaken to push back against the dehumanizing pressures of digital culture. The reactionary measure that such a move ultimately translates to, in terms of boxing, as individuals simply seek out a gym to train, is, of course, to seek out life: the dying boxing gym, either in its authentic form such as Ramalho’s in Lowell, and even in its caricature form as “boxing gyms” in gentrified cities, has become a paradoxical cradle for life.
This very tension, in my reading, seems most pronounced in my photography of the boxing community in Lowell, Massachusetts. For in Lowell boxing still manages to retain some form of cultural significance, as it still represents the lingering association of this mill city to its glory days as a center of industry and how the craft of boxing once ran as a social current along side the multiple working factories along the Merrimack River; the same city whose native son Jack Kerouac once remarked
If you ever see an
full-fisted at a sandbag
and making the whole
gym creak, you’ll learn
never to start a fight
with any big boy you
ever do meet in any bar
from Portland Maine to
Only an artist like Kerouac can truly appreciate boxing: a highly sensitive and intuitive soul; a street corner intellectual respected by university elite; and simultaneously the type of guy would gladly step outside of a bar with any man and go toe to toe; with Kerouac, if he was drunk enough, we could even see him hopping in the ring with Tyson. But this is why, as a side note, a writer like Kerouac would have been the greatest boxing writer ever. Because Kerouac, at the end of the day, was simply a “neighborhood guy” — a French Canadian kid from Lowell who could scrap in the street, respected the man who worked 9-5 and provided for his family, and believed, paradoxically, in a boxing type of logic. It is no secret that Kerouac eventually came to despise Ginsberg and his ultra liberal politics, his pathological desire to breakdown the very things Kerouac, after all his travels and pain, came to hold most dear — just being an everyday Joe from Lowell.
Re-approaching the dynamic between the contemporary boxer and my photographic work, this same tension is taken to its limit when we abstract a step further and juxtapose the boxer against the image itself. There is a fundamental tension that now lives where the boxer meets himself as an image: how the boxer now perpetually encounters himself, not as a boxer, but as an image of a boxer. Today, with the rise of networked technology and pervasive digital influence, the image has become a hegemonic force. In 2016, the image functions as the dictator, ironically, of reality itself as it continually asserts its presence as the driving force of both the global economic and social order: we socially act as if we are our Facebook avatars, we economically respond to the incessant streams of advertising and marketing we daily encounter, and on the pixilated screens of the equity trading pits around the globe, the real power of the image is unveiled in its most radical form.
Boxing, in principal, categorically rejects the power and presence of the image within the ring. The ring, a square enclosure of 20 x 20, is the ultimate space where the raw power of reality is displayed: Violence. Boxing is a sport fundamentally comprised of concrete physiological processes and organic social relations that coalesce into two human beings encountering one another in the form of a prize fight. That very activity — which transpires within the ring in the form of two human beings authentically and intimately encountering one another — is the point where we can bear full witness to the essence of reality: and in such a moment, what is most un-welcome is the image. It is the height of irony then, that within the scope of boxing’s existence as a contemporary global sport and spectacle, it is the image itself that is the most essential piece for the sport to be effectively branded and marketed: boxing must drink its own poison to function. In a certain sense, I would make the claim that one of the central reasons the sport is collectively disintegrating is for the very fact it’s essential activity is too real for the image saturated world we currently inhabit.
So with that being in mind, I am always aware that every picture I take of the boxer captures a small piece of his or her integrity and power away. Therefore, I am extremely grateful for being allowed to photograph these boxers in their natural environments. I have been continually inspired by their humility, candor, and genuine sense of humanity. To be in an authentic boxing gym in 2016 is somewhat of a cathartic experience, possibly even spiritual. Its contemporary power rests on the ability to bear simple witness to reality itself, to humanity itself unfolding with every landed jab and piece of footwork. My respect of the authentic boxer — the aspiring prizefighter — is due to this precise dynamic: they are the mystics of the modern world, the corporeal prophets who can awaken us to what the body can still do, how it can still labor under excruciating conditions; even in a world such as ours that seems pathologically fixated on eschewing of all things mystical; the very thing that provides reality with its most real dimension.
An article I wrote appearing on the site, Caught in Southie.
Link to shorter version of article: http://www.caughtinsouthie.com/feature/some-thoughts-gentrification
Link to full article: http://www.thegentrificationofboston.com
“It is always from the depths of its impotence that each power center draws its power, hence their extreme maliciousness, and vanity. (1)
| Giles Delueze / Felix Guattari |
One of the difficulties in discussing gentrification is its status, not as a thing that can be sensed and touched, a concrete manifestation, but rather as the ideology par excellence that sustains the contemporary urban theatre. Yet, at the precise same time, there is no illusion present in the materiel reality of a new luxury condominium development overtaking a former Catholic grammar school and the accompanying transformation of both its architecture and historical production of meaning. But, as we analyze gentrification and its incursion into the Boston neighborhood, we should always keep in mind that hegemonic real estate development is not gentrification itself. Rather, it is a symptomatic manifestation that emerges from deeper causal relations, and then, as in this specific case, materializes as an event to elucidate the core of its abstract social processes. However, these central features that demarcate and define gentrification’s force interieure – it’s abstract and invisible nature – should never take away from the fact that gentrification, as its urban effects begin to disclose themselves, can only be considered entirely catastrophic for city life and the social relations that once defined it. The catastrophe that gentrification carries forth, as it paradoxically positions and brands itself as the epitome of urban improvement, is always obfuscated by the proclaimed ”benefits” it is said to entail: exponentially increasing tax revenue, rising real estate value, aesthetic reconfigurations in a former depressed neighborhood, etc. But ironically, this built in social catastrophe that accompanies gentrification in its movement across urban space, is both integrated and deflected by both the mainstream political and left and right, simultaneously. Even more specifically, this mutual deflection and integration is always executed by the very worst features of these once, now only alleged, oppositional political ideologies.
For the left, gentrification represents a definitive form of urban “progress,” as it embodies the renouncing and reconstitution of antiquated notions of social organization and community, in favor of a postmodern multiplicity that uses the always ambiguous term, “inclusiveness,” as its theoretical justification. That word specifically, “inclusiveness,” becomes the adjective par excellence that the left continually uses to justify the logic of gentrification as it radically replaces and displaces the once defined “old neighborhoods” of the American city. But of course, nothing in contemporary urban America is more exclusive than gentrification, most especially for the traditional city dwellers who can no longer afford to reside in their own neighborhood. And because gentrification – at least in its current form within certain post industrial American cities – always carries with it a certain level of technological progression within its spaces of activity, and thus producing the excellent illusion of democratization and egalitarianism, the left can not help but fawn over gentrification’s rapid acceleration.
For the right, gentrification represents a different kind of “progress.” It represents unhinged capital circulation, radical entrepreneurship, corporate power, and the ever present challenge of the developer to claim bureaucratic victory over any city ordinance or municipal restriction that seeks to disrupt the flow of its exponential process. For the right, the real estate developer is transformed into an Ayn Rand character, a la Howard Roark, and their property acquisitions/ design/ construction are mythologized as a triumph of free market logic and global capital: the right integrates gentrification into its overall goals because of its fierce allegiance to capital’s properties of multiplication and circulation.
Now, opposing its own support for gentrification as elucidated in the above paragraph, for the left, gentrification becomes a theoretically disastrous proposition in its continual devouring of particular urban life worlds it consumes on its pathway towards city hegemony. It’s deep and explicit association with the brutality of global capital, the primary historical enemy of the left, is perpetually reincarnated in the contemporary urban theatre in the form of real estate developers and multinational corporations looking to extend their profit in the neighborhoods once inhabited by working class city dwellers. The left can only bear silent, painful, witness to the transformation of the once vibrant inner city neighborhood – a neighborhood composed of hardworking residents with their history, ethnic territories, and organic communal relations on proud display – into an obscene Disneyland version of the city neighborhood. We can comically note how the contemporary North End is eerily similar to the “Italian” section of Epcot Center.
For the right, gentrification also presents theoretical conflicts with their own allegiance to its very process that was articulated above. This conflict emerges for the right because of gentrification’s continual effacing of history, community tradition, and most importantly, the practice of organized religion as the grounding practice for social morality, a historical texture to the social body the right claims to be essential. But historical, organized, religion rather becomes the ultimate persona non grata in the gentrified space, much to right’s dismay. That is to say: the political right has to deal with a perpetual inner tension that is inscribed into the heart of gentrification. For even with its vast profits and possibility of radical capital accumulation, there still remains an unsurpassable obstacle that its own ideology desires to transcend. We can state this in the form of the follwing impossible query, “How do we make as much as money as possible, yet keep the “old neighborhood church” in tact?”
But, in this bipolar posturing (simultaneous support and disavowal) by both sides of mainstream political ideology, the core of gentrification’s ideological nexus is never,ever approached. A recent film I wrote and directed, The Mission, forced me to become extremely familiar with gentrification: specifically how gentrification absolutely destroyed the entire foundation of neighborhood basketball, inner city street ball, the very activity that once produced the NBA superstars who radically transformed the game in the postwar decades. That tragedy, the tragedy of urban basketball’s formal demise, is just too obvious not to miss in any honest observation of the empty contemporary basketball courts now populating American cities. But, my deeper inquiry was the gaze upon gentrification as the symbolic counterpart to the core practices that result from the obscene relationship that constitutes our present economy: unmitigated flows of capital coupled with the social destabilization of digital technologies.
But of course, in the purest demonstration of the alienation that accompanies our collective postmodern condition, is that to work within and be integrated into the machinery of techno-capital is, of course, to also be blinded to the very processes that define gentrification’s operative logic. That is to say, to participate in gentrification – as an active instigator, a victim, a casual observer, even a politician dealing with the fall out from their own constituents – is to most likely be unconscious to the multiple ideological features that demarcate gentrification, features that are always transpiring before our very eyes. That being said, and with my own continual and evolving attempt to understand the factors at play regarding the general scope of gentrification – historical, social, religious, philosophical, technological, aesthetic – I have become intrigued by the current and specificdevelopments pertaining to the Gate of Heaven School in South Boston as it relates to this exact topic of gentrification’s innate ambiguity. But, what intrigues me most about this event is the particular intensity of emotional, historical, and social ties that this building has to the local neighborhood in South Boston’s City Point: a complex relational web which has effectively transformed this showdown into a very defined event as it directly references the previously articulated tension that is always present, in on form or another, that accompanies gentrification’s motion through urban space.
For here is a concrete event, a moment in time, where the opposing forces – the real estate developer vs what is left of the community base – dramatically collide over the fate of a children’s school and the stakes of the game are very high. However, after reading Ray Flynn’s, the seeming spokesman for the local community, recent column in the Boston Herald I was disheartened by the scope of the defense he utilized to pose a legitimate critique against gentrification’s incursion into the very bricks of this former Catholic grammar school: a vague public statement articulated, ostensibly, to stop this specific real estate venture from moving forward. More accurately stating my critique, Flynn employed just as much smoke and mirrors in his defense against gentrification as the developers use in their argument forgentrification. This is not saying Flynn overtly and consciously misrepresented the facts, far from it, and for the record I have tremendous respect and admiration for the former mayor as I consider him a personal friend. But rather, it seems he was compelled to skirt around the crux of the issue entirely and use a series of non sequitur and unrelated arguments to further his general position that turning the former grammar school to condos is an obscenity, immoral, and inherently wrong. Of course, Flynn was absolutely correct in his basic, but restrained, assertion regarding the future of the school being transformed into luxury condos as being unconscionable. However, my critique is rather on the way he attempted to convey that very point. And it is this precise element, Flynn’s rhetorical ambiguity conveying the overt brutality and violence of gentrification, that brings us to the very heart of the matter: The truth of gentrification is very uncomfortable to talk about, so it must be averted at all costs.
THE DARK NIGHT
So, any type of public discourse by either the proponents or detractors of gentrification, can’t help but remind us of the excellent Christopher Nolan film, The Dark Knight, and its extremely honest rendering of contemporary political relations. For at the climax of the film, is it not Batman himself who takes the public fall for Harvey Dent, the District Attorney of Gotham City? That is to say, rather than admitting the inconvenient truth to the people of Gotham regarding Dent’s identity as “Two Face,” Batman does the complete opposite. Instead, he takes the blame himself to protect the people’s illusions and thus, unwillingly, employs the political logic of Plato or Immanuel Kant that goes something like this: the people can’t handle the real truth, so we must protect them by inventing an acceptable alternative.
Batman and his police friend Gordon recognize the loss of morale the city would suffer if Dent’s crimes became known. So Batman persuades Gordon to preserve Dent’s image by holding Batman responsible for the murders; Gordon destroys the Bat Signal and a manhunt for Batman ensues. This need to perpetuate a lie in order to sustain public morale is the film’s final message: only a lie can redeem us. (2)
But, it is this very point articulated by Zizek, the great contemporary critic, in the above passage from his excellent book, Living in the End Times, that forms the basis of my central analysis of gentrification and the adamant refusal of all parties to publicly speak of its mysterious and destructive nature: the truth of gentrification is so uncomfortable, so revealing, and so incredible, that both sides of the issue must constantly dance around it in order to avoid confronting its ideological center. So, no matter how gentrification appears, no matter how shiny the new building looks, and no matter how much “progress” it is said to theoretically entail in its present day urban application, at the very heart of this process is something that we do not like to speak of. For ultimately, gentrification is perhaps, at its simplest level of interpretation, is nothing more than a mirror of ourselves, and possibly, our collective social dysfunction.
So, the issue at hand, ironically, is not the future of the school itself. Of course, I feel as any decent observer would, luxury condos as a substitute for a former Catholic grammar school is nothing short of a tragedy, while demonstrating at the precise same time, the very real problem that seems to be at the center of the dysfunction that demarcates American society today: the very dangerous association of correlating “social progress” with financial speculation and even worse, unhinged technological “advancement.” But, at the very same time, and taking reality into account, I can also consciously acknowledge that preventing this specific development from moving forward will most likely have no effect towards suspending gentrification’s rapid acceleration and encapsulation of all urban spaces: from Brooklyn, to Inglewood, to South Boston. So for me, the real issue at stake is rather: can the parties at hand talk honestly and openly about not just this specific effect of gentrification, but rather its underlying causes? Can the parties strip away all of the surface rhetoric and look at the truth of what this process actually is, on its deepest ideological level? Can the parties understand the multiple factors in play and completely divorce themselves from any political position that obfuscates what is transpiring before them? Can they, rather than being developers or neighborhood activists, just be human beings? And it is in this very possibility of potential discourse – genuine human encounter between “developer” and “neighborhood person” – is also where the Gate of Heaven event has the potential to be the most effective, most powerful, and most honest. After all, this is a church property we are speaking of, a place where truth, or at least the search for truth, should be front and center of all potential dialogue.
CONCLUSION: THE “Real” GATE OF HEAVEN
From the Boston Globe, June 23, 2015
A developer’s plan to convert a shuttered Catholic school into condominiums won a key zoning approval Tuesday, likely clearing the way for construction to begin on the controversial South Boston project later this year.
Dorchester developer Oranmore Enterprises LLC has proposed putting 26 condos into the four-story Gate of Heaven Catholic school, which closed in 2008. Its plan won preliminary approval from City Hall in March, and at hearing Tuesday, Boston’s Zoning Board of Appeals voted to approve several remaining zoning exceptions the project needed to proceed.
“I think it’s good for the community,” said Michael Moore, the project’s manager. “We’ve invested a lot of time and energy and money into the process, so it’s absolutely satisfying to see it get resolved.”
Moore said the only hurdle remaining is obtaining a routine building permit, and that he expects to begin construction in September.
Though the project is modest in scope compared to other developments underway in the city, a highly vocal group of South Boston residents has maneuvered to block it at every turn, saying the development would overcrowd the area and calling it a symbol of the neighborhood’s ongoing gentrification.
Last year, the Gate of Heaven Neighborhood Association persuaded City Hall to put the development on hold for months while residents unsuccessfully searched for a charter school to take over the building instead.
That “cooling off period” came to an abrupt end in March, when Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration allowed the project to come before the Boston Redevelopment Authority for approval, enraging neighbors who say they had been assured the project was dead. Since then, Walsh’s administration has issued terse statements insisting that the project needs to go forward before the rundown building decays further or the real estate market declines.
“I do understand there is an element in the community that wanted to see a school there, but it just wasn’t viable,” Moore said. “If it was, it would have happened.”
Dozens of neighbors showed up for the hearing Tuesday, handing over a petition against the project they said contained 2,000 signatures — to no avail.
“We’re very disappointed in the mayor,” said Kevin Lally, the neighborhood group’s leader. “He’s turned his back on the schoolchildren of South Boston.”
Lally said his group had hired a lawyer and is now planning to sue Oranmore Enterprises in a last-ditch attempt to block the project. (3)
There is no real surprise as to the final decision that was recently formalized regarding the fate of this neighborhood grammar school, a school once bursting with the countless children of South Boston’s Irish Catholic families. However, can we not be amazed, or even disturbed, at the logic of the alternative solution presented by the South Boston community group, the very group that was opposed to the condominium development because of the position it stakes? That is to say, their solution was to have the school, a historical symbol of local consciousness and culture, be administered by an outside charter school that would have to bus students in from surrounding areas because of the fact that there aren’t even enough children in South Boston to populate the school any longer. Even the oppositional stance, incredibly enough, furthers the overall logic of gentrification. This is ideology working in fullest capacity: invisible even to the people who claim to be against it.
But the ultimate irony in this whole situation is not so much that a Catholic grammar school is being supplanted by a development consisting of “luxury” condos, a crystal clear articulation of gentrification’s underlying logic and ideological crux. The true irony is what emerges from the enunciation of the school’s name itself. “Gate of Heaven,” how appropriate is that very name to serve as a metaphorical background to the unfloding of these events? Isn’t there a little part of us all – no matter if we are Catholic, atheist, or even a New Age yoga practitioner – that can’t help but wonder what St. Peter himself, the very guardian of “the gate of heaven,” thinks of this mundane situation? The irony, laid bare in its most telling dimensions, emerges from Matthew 29 when Christ remarks, “And again, I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.” (4) But, rather than descending into a critique that draws upon this central element of Christian theology to attack the underlying desire that guides this development and its vacuous assertion that “it’s good for the community,” we should instead see something entirely different: we should appropriately note the obscenity of gentrification’s “spirituality” on display for all to see. Meaning, to look at this development overtaking a site once native to an education steeped in the Catholic faith, is to also observe the fact that these condos represent a new kind, a perverted kind, of “Faith” in the Boston of today. To be painfully blunt, the contemporary luxury condo is nothing more than a “million dollar rosary,” for its social function is to ground the deed holder into a system of meaning, a system of collective values and norms that articulates a series of metaphysical codes that reference its Master – global capital. And it is this fact, this recognition of gentrification’s covert theological dimensions, is what emerges as the ultimate tragedy from this transition: the formal transition of capital accumulation acquiring its place as a “spiritual practice,” a practice that must fragment any and all historical spiritual practices and orders, such as the parish church and school, that once grounded, and provided stable meaning, for social life in the American city.
1 Gilles Deleuze Quotes.http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/13009.Gilles_Deleuze. Retrieved July 21, 2015.
2 Zikek, Slavoj . (2010). Living in the end times. London: Verso. pg. 59
3. Adams, D. (2015, June 23). Gate of Heaven condo project in South Boston gets final OK; neighbors plan suit. Boston Globe, p. Business.
4. Matthew 19 vs 24. (1985). In The Holy Bible: King James Version. New York: American Bible Society.
Of all the thematic binarities Ex-Machina employs to develop its narrative–man vs machine, morality vs power, secrets vs transparency–it is the one never overtly spoken of that has the most profound effect. For in thisbinarity, the mise en scene of the entire film, the primal dialectic ofnature (the pure and untouched natural world, that is) is confronted with thedigital. The traditional opposition, on the other hand, of nature vs. technology has always been articulated through the confrontation of nature with specifically analog technologies such as oil spills, factory pollution, and toxic waste, which most often serve as our metaphors for this hostile relationship of nature vs. man made technologies. It is an obvious, and by now well-worn thematic opposition, namely that nature is clean, while technology is dirty.
But it is this very point of reorganization within Ex Machina where we can be most disturbed in our framing of this binarity. For the technology used in this film is, of course, digital technology, and this specific form of technology is not quite so obviously threatening to ecosystems. Rather,digital technology seems, at first glance, to be in sync with nature itself. It is, after all, clean, minimal, ‘organic,’ and contains no external waste. Digital technology’s ostensible effect on nature – never conspicuous in such outward events as a nuclear accident or an urban smoke stack – makes it seem entirely harmless. But that is the precise problem this film forces us to confront.
The narrative begins when an employee, a star programmer at a Google-like technology firm called Bluebook, wins an internal company contest that has as its prize a chance to spend a week with Bluebooks’s reclusive founder at his personal compound. We don’t know where this compound is located, as we are never told, but we can guess based on the scenery that it is somewhere close to either the North or South Pole: southern Argentina, Iceland, the southern island of New Zealand, or maybe even northern Canada. The point is that the compound is immersed and surrounded by pure nature, a postmodern Garden of Eden.
The employee, Caleb, is helicoptered in to meet the Sergey Brin/Elon Musk/Ray Kurzweil inspired character, Bluebook founder, Nathan. Shortly after introductions, and following the disarming of Caleb’s star struck attitude towards Nathan, Caleb is told the truth of the contest’s real purpose: Caleb has been selected to perform a Turing test on a recent model of Artificial Intelligence, known as Ava, that Nathan has programmed in his seclusion. The Turing test, initially theorized by computer pioneer Alan Turing, goes something like this: if you are interacting with an intelligent machine and you cannot tell whether it is human or not, then it has passed the test, it is bona fide AI.
The Turing test, however, was always theorized to be undertaken as a blind test. That is to say, the person would never be looking at the machine directly, but rather interacting with it from afar, or from a screen. However, the test Caleb is charged with performing is an open version of the test. He will come face to face with the potentiality of Artificial Intelligence, yet clearly perceive that this humanoid is in fact a machine of appearances: she has robot arms and legs, her head is partially exposed as machine circuitry, yet her face is human. So, an apparently simple test to be performed, with this outward constitution of machine properties giving the game away, herinner self, her digital soul, becomes far more difficult for Caleb to grasp in simple black and white terms.
This is the consistent mind bend that Ex Machina gives us: we know that Ava is a machine, yet we don’t, or at least we are confused that we don’t. Ava, sadly, has more human qualities than most contemporary human beings. She is present, attentive, engaging, mirroring, and inquisitive. She displays a very real sense of human presence. Her vulnerability is palpable. Her honesty is intoxicating. This is contrasted with the inner life of Caleb, a computer programmer, a man who has ostensibly been stuck to a pixillated screen, writing code and constructing algorithms for the past ten years. We learn in their interactions that Caleb’s parents were killed in a car accident. We learn that he lives alone, in a one bedroom apartment on Long Island near the east coast headquarters of Bluebook. We learn, that he has built in defenses, like everyone else, walls around his heart, and protective mechanisms that seal his very humanity within himself.
What do we see on the screen? What is this existential rupture that appears before our eyes? It is a man, Caleb, who has paradoxically become a machinethrough his conditioning and interactions with postmodernity. And it is a machine, Ava, who paradoxically behaves like a human through her programming language. It is an opposition of itself and within itself.
As Caleb and Ava’s sessions continue, a relationship begins to develop. Caleb is captivated by her qualities, her honesty, yet he resists his feelings because he knows her truth: “she” is a machine. This complicated relationship is further extended when the power inside the compound is cut during a session, effectively disabling Nathan from monitoring their interactions, and Ava delivers a bombshell to Caleb, ‘Nathan is evil. Do not trust him under any circumstances.’ The power is suddenly turned backed on and Ava changes the topic so effortlessly, so subtly, that you wish you could have been as coy the time you got caught bad mouthing your boss behind his back.
Caleb is shaken by Ava’s revelation, but this is not a compete surprise to him either. First, Nathan is a severe alcoholic, a person with tremendous internal dysfunction. Second, he also demonstrates traces of megalomania, this frightening desire ‘to be God’ as he comically asserts in one scene in his relation to being the first human to write a program of AI. Now, in a way even Kafka could never articulate, Caleb is essentially caught between the binary: do I trust the human who I know is bad, or, do I trust the robot whose true nature I don’t even know?
This decision is eventually made by the dual factors of Caleb’s feelings for Ava developing further after additional sessions, but also when Caleb, while Nathan is passed out, logs on to his computer and sees clear visual evidence of Nathan ‘killing’ past versions of Ava. He is forced into realizing the inevitability of Ava’s fate if he does not intervene before his week at the compound is up. He also realizes, while Nathan is unconscious, that Kyoko, the silent female Japanese house servant, (the only other character in the film) is actually a model of Artificial Intelligence as well, having a sophisticated outer layer of skin that covers her entire body and effectively makes her machinic nature unsuspected.
In the next session, during another power cut, the plan is made: the next day Caleb will get Nathan drunk, hack into the security system, and flee the compound with Ava, freeing her from her confinement, thus liberating her humanity. However, unbeknownst to Caleb, that morning Nathan had installed a battery powered camera (subtly proving analog technology more effective) so that he could monitor Caleb and Ava’s interactions in case of another power shortage. Nathan, learning the truth, confronts Caleb and surprisingly congratulates him for his deception.
That is to say, Nathan essentially says to Caleb, ‘Thank you, Caleb. You showed me, by falling in love with Ava and trying to rescue her, that she did in fact pass the Turing test. She is, without question, Artifical Intelligence.‘ However, Nathan has underestimated the extent of Caleb’s commitment. Caleb then reveals that he has already disabled the security system, effectively freeing Ava from her private room into the larger compound. Nathan, turning to the security monitor and seeing Ava roaming the hallways freely, punches Caleb in the face and knocks him out before heading towards a final confrontation with his creation: the digital self of Ava.
We now come to the climactic scene, in which the filmmaker, Alex Garland, reveals the truth, the essential horror, of the situation in a multiplicity of cinematic meanings. In my reading of the film’s text the most important moment of this scene is absolutely not the violent encounter between Nathan and Ava. Rather, it is the entirely unsettling encounter between Ava and Kyoko, the other intelligent machine, before Davis appears in the hallway. Note that Kyoko has appeared entirely docile throughout the film. She prepares sushi, cleans the house, and even has sex with Nathan. But when Ava, initially seeing her in the hallway, approaches and whisperssomething in her ear, her internal programming is reconstituted. The machines, recognizing their respective ontological truth as digital entities, join forces against their programmer.
Nathan appears in the hallway and Ava sprints toward him and violently attacks, jumps on him and begins to strangle Nathan. Nathan regains the upper hand when he gets on top of Ava and bashes her arm off with a metal pipe he had brought with him as a defense. But then, in a moment taken directly from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Nathan is stabbed in the back with a kitchen blade. And rather than saying, ‘Et tu Brutus?’ it is Caesar 2.0 in the form of, ‘Et tu Kyoko?’ Nathan is literally and metaphorically stabbed in the back by his own program. Kyoko, the docile houseworker machine, is transformed into his assailant. Nathan manages to “kill” Kyoko with a violent blow to the head when he turns around, but Ava rises, takes the knife from his back and stabs him in the heart, killing him.
We are then further amazed when Caleb, upon awakening from his injury, is made privy to the violent turn of events: Ava has killed Nathan. And now Ava, after the event, has gone to Nathan’s private quarters where she finds a ‘body suit’ and puts it on, shielding her machine torso and limbs, thus becoming human. She is now effectively, from the outside at least, ostensibly human. But Caleb, now waiting for Ava to keep her word and escape with him, is abandoned by Ava, left locked inside the compound unable to leave. Ava ultimately has no interest in Caleb and on her own accord, leaves the compound and takes what would have been Caleb’s helicopter ride, back to the heart of Western Civilization.
Again, the machinic theme that Western cinema has been wrestling with since at least 2001: A Space Odyssey: at a certain point, the machine progresses on its own, leaving the human behind. The final frame of the film shows Ava on her own in an urban shopping mall. The shadows on the ground–an obvious nod to Plato’s cave–give us the final message: we are lostin technology, and must, one day, somehow, make our way out of the cave.