Ari is a bonafide intellectual (ask them what happened when the Jewish tradition encountered the Enlightenment and they won’t miss a beat!) and a super down-to-earth one. Though, as I’ve learned, they are quite fascinated by heavens and otherworldly realms, all of which made for pleasantly trippy conversation. I spoke to Ari on Zoom about possible machine takeovers, Jewish mythology, where to find divine palaces, and the rush of art-making. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jason: Hello, Ari! I’d love to hear about your studio, Delta Ark.
Ari: The studio has existed for about a decade. There are two bodies of work—the first was involved with themes of social futurism, economic inequality, and environmental justice, which were rendered as large, performative, architectural installations often with a digital component. The past few years have been more focused on weaving aspects of Jewish culture with transhumanism and queer theory. Kind of like a triangle that gets rendered into pretty complex, strange art games!
[Editor’s note: I’m lugging in the Oxford Dictionary to define transhumanism: “the belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology.”]
Where is the overlap with Judaism and transhumanism and queer theory?
The problem is that there’s not as much overlap as there should be. I don’t hear people in our tradition talking enough about the idea of certain technologies coming out, whether it’s brain-computer interfaces, genetic engineering, or artificial intelligence. Those are the three I would point to that are wrapped up in transhumanist ideology that’s radically reconfiguring what it means to be human. Our tradition has a lot of ideas about what it means to be human and these two things need to be talking to each other! On the queer theory side, that’s actually very related to technological development as a move away from nature, or enabling gender to move away from more fixed polarities.
Are there any themes in Judaism that feel particularly resonant with the transhumanist scope or project?
Absolutely. Oh, we froze!
That feels like proof we’re living in a simulation. Okay, you’re back.
The answer is yes, though more with mystical Judaism than the Judaism I was taught, which was Reform. I would say both the Merkabah [Editor’s note by way of Wikipedia: “a school of early Jewish mysticism, c. 100 BCE – 1000 CE”] and the Kabbalah have a lot to say about the idea of human transformation and the transformation of the world. I particularly like the imagery in the Merkabah, because there’s all these divine palaces and divine machines. That’s a really good mythology to mine and analogize towards some of the new tech that’s coming down the pipeline. Then you just have legends like the Golem
[Editor’s note: the formidable creature conjured from clay by a Rabbi in Prague as a means to protect the endangered Jewish community].
I was exploring your website and enjoying the many dreamscapes and micro universes. I felt like I was entering the Matrix for a second! Is there any project you’ve been working on recently that you’ve been excited about?
The one that’s most directly applicable to what we’ve been talking about is called Novacene Hekhalot — the title is a good way to unpack it. James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia hypothesis [Editor’s note: the idea that the planet and all its bio systems function as one organism], wrote a book called Novacene. Lovelack explores the transition from the Anthropocene, meaning the age of human beings and their domination of the planet Earth, into the Novacene, which is when machine life will basically take over. He thinks the machines will view us as plants, because there’ll be so much faster than we are! So the first word is about the coming age of machines.
The second, Hekhalot, is a reference to the Merkabah mystical literature, where people would essentially get high and have visions of the Divine, like God’s Palace. Hekal is the word for palace. I’m bringing these two ideas together into an audiovisual set made inside of a game engine. It’ll be composed of five different acts that walk us through the transition from the Anthropocene into Novacene from a Jewish perspective.
Very cool. With AI, there’s always so many fear narratives (they’re coming for us, everyone’s gonna be out of a job, etc.). Are there any narratives to be excited about? Are you optimistic? Or should we be shaking with fear?
There are many positive narratives and many middle narratives, but fear sells, so we see more fear. Here’s a middle narrative (i.e. some good, some bad). For generative AI like DALL-E, they might figure out, “Okay, we have to pay artists when the AI draws on their work,” even if it ends up being a micro royalty like .001 of a cent. In that case, you have this scenario where yes, a bunch of people might be out of work but a bunch of people also get paid.
And also the state of the art changes in such a way where there might be more creative opportunities in a certain direction. A silly, super good narrative is that someone figures out mind scanning, digital duplication, or (if we’re lucky) uploading, and by 2075, you’re able to produce a digital copy of yourself that lives forever! Depending on your outlook, you might see that as either a horrible narrative or a great narrative. I think it’s a great one, but we’ll see.
I think it’s so interesting that very often technology sits at the crux of dream and nightmare. Okay, moving on from potential human obsolescence, I’m curious what your Jewish life looks like here?
I’m not involved at all but I would like to be! I’m really involved as a scholar and as an artist. When I do a performance or an exhibition, the audience gains exposure to the ideas, mythologies, themes, and feelings that are around some of the issues we’ve discussed. But it would be wonderful to have more peer community around these kinds of concerns and questions. I am slowly discovering people and this is a good place to do that.
On that note, and as part of our in-house Proust Questionnaire, tell us a poem, book, movie, play, or piece of art or media that you love.
Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism by Gershom Scholem is just the greatest book. As someone who was raised Reform, encountering that book blows off the top of your skull. It was like rediscovering Judaism.
What’s the Bay’s best-kept secret?
I’m gonna turn this around and say an open secret: the East Bay is the center for non-binary culture, maybe in the world. This is the place to be for that! The queer community is so hilarious and amazing here. If someone’s queer, they should just be on Lex immediately, which is this ridiculous community and dating app. I scroll through the posts every morning because they’re so funny and so good!
When was the last time you felt some kind of spiritual connection?
Every day. When I work on this kind of art, it’s like tapping into some weird stream—some underwater river of light. It’s so animating to be connected to your culture this way.
GatherBay Profiles is our interview series spotlighting the vast array of community members doing rad things! Released twice per month, the series aspires to celebrate GatherBay’s greatest treasure—the people around us. Want to be profiled? Email email@example.com.