On the evolution of the Ancestor

Exploring new work by Rachel Ara supported by the Near Now Fellowship

Posted on 3rd October 2018

Written by Laura Hudson

An essay by Laura Hudson on new work by Near Now Fellow Rachel Ara.

Rachel Ara is a data and conceptual artist based in London. She is a trained cabinet maker, with a BA in Fine Art from Goldsmiths and a career in computer programming spanning 25 years. Ara is currently artist in residence at the V&A Vari Research department (responding to the museum’s data) and was a Near Now Fellow 2017-2018.

As her Near Now fellowship comes to an end it is an opportune moment to take a look at this critical period of development.

“The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art - and, by analogy, our own experience - more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means”

— Susan Sontag (Against Interpretation, 1964)

Methodologies and the human learning parallel

The evolution of an artwork can have complex, multiple journeys, sometimes littered with dead-ends and false starts but it is often those hitches in the process that can produce a happy accident or refined subtleties previously unthinkable. The necessity to acquire new skills might slow the process down but learning a new skill forever alters the brain, you are no longer what you were, but different. Changed by new information and newly embodied knowledge, perceptions are shifted. Evolution becomes the thing; leads onto other things, generates new ideas, new work and new ways of thinking.

Having worked for 25 years as a computer systems programmer, where methodologies are stiff with protocols, Rachel Ara’s iterative approach is both thorough and experimental. As a maker her method is to interrogate ideas and forms through iterative prototypes. Borrowing useful protocols from IT and a sense of invention from Heath Robinson’s cartoons of fantastically over-complicated madcap machines, Ara’s highly developed skills, born out of continuous practice in fine woodwork, are put to work servicing the conceptual mind of a research magpie whose shiny things are the hidden agendas embedded within our society.

On prototyping and the Endorsers

In 2014 Rachel Ara began a prototype for This Much I’m Worth, a small scale proof of concept machine that could become a self-evaluating artwork.

The prototype consists of an old school metal armature (1970’s neon housing from the USA) cradling a neon arrow (blown by the artist herself) and a set of seven nixie lights (cold cathode tubes from Ukraine). It is connected to a black box hooked up to the internet of things and filled with electronics: Arduino, multiple sensors and a bespoke PCB to control the nixie lights.

This Much I'm Worth (A self-evaluating artwork)  Prototype, 2014-2015, Rachel Ara

This Much I'm Worth (A self-evaluating artwork) Prototype, 2014-2015, Rachel Ara

Part way through making the prototype Ara was kicked out of her studio in Plymouth. Without a place to make, Ara was forced to concentrate on programming the machine, its sensors and what Ara calls the endorsers; a series of programmes that calculate the artwork's own value. These electronic endorsers play games with the endorsers of the art world, the gatekeepers: gallerists, critics, dealers and funders whose endorsement is so essential to artists. Taking their standard terms of reference as starting points, the electronic endorsers disrupt, looking for hidden agendas and biases that underpin the visible fabric, collecting and collating their data (from the IP cameras, stock market, social media etc) to feed back to the machine. Small programmes then animate the nixie lights to display the machines own value. Reduced solely to monetary terms - a set of numbers tell us how much it is worth [GBP]. 

This prototype went on to win the £5000 Aesthetica Prize in 2016, enabling Ara to start building the artwork. Meanwhile the endorsers have a new endorsement and write that into their script.

This Much I'm Worth (A self-evaluating artwork)  Prototype, 2014-2015, Rachel Ara

This Much I'm Worth (A self-evaluating artwork) Prototype, 2014-2015, Rachel Ara

Scaling up & why is big so beautiful?

The art world loves BIG, which can be a serious handicap for many artists without funds or space to work, a situation that weighs particularly heavily against women. Now with a studio in London, Ara took the Aesthetica prize money and Serrota at his word when he declared that artists need to be able to “demonstrate that they are capable of making really major statements” and went big. A deliberate strategy or rather provocation.

Scaling up and replacing the small nixie lights in the prototype with 84 neon digits, meant a large electrical current and a huge feat of electrical engineering. Ara tried to engage a company that specializes in neon animation - initially they were excited by such a complex project but when they got her CV instantly backed out, we can only assume because, as her CV makes quite clear, she is a gay woman. As a matter of principle, Ara decided that for this project she would work only with women. Several months of trying to find a female electrical engineer came to nothing, something of a revelation and indictment that there were so few out there. In the end Ara did the electrics herself, learning out of necessity through YouTube videos and working with specialist neon blower Julia Bickerstaff.

This Much I'm Worth, CAD concept drawing, Rachel Ara

This Much I'm Worth, CAD concept drawing, Rachel Ara

It took two years of programming and a half ton of old server room cabinets, cut-up and repurposed, to build a Frankensteinian monstrosity that brashly declares its own value. This Much I’m Worth, pictured below quietly keeps tabs on the world outside and asserts its own value, which it tweets daily @ThisMuchImWorth.

The sculpture is bigger, but is it better? Well it can’t be ignored and if you are determined to say something – that might be necessary.

This Much I'm Worth (A self-evaluating artwork) May 2017, Rachel Ara. 83 pieces of neon, recycled server room equipment, electronics, computers, IP Cameras, Programming ( ​420cm x 160cm x 90cm) Weight approx 400 KG

This Much I'm Worth (A self-evaluating artwork) May 2017, Rachel Ara. 83 pieces of neon, recycled server room equipment, electronics, computers, IP Cameras, Programming ( ​420cm x 160cm x 90cm) Weight approx 400 KG

It was for spares

Another thing the art world loves is a story with narrative rites of passage, rooted in ancestral themes. Ara’s Ancestor, implying the one that went before, (4) came after This Much I’m Worth, but it doesn’t know it. Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is made all the more horrific by the innocence of its narrator, who either doesn’t know or question her purpose. She is one of many clones bred so that their organs can be harvested for the benefit of their originals.

Built for spares, the Ancestor has the same metal armature, the same programming, the same neon digits and access to the endorsers but with only one ‘Keeper’ (a metal cage housing a stack of 10 [0-9] neon digits), it cannot communicate its value. The Ancestor is an anomaly, breaking with the order of things. Naturalist Charles Darwin argued that organisms gradually evolve through a process he called ‘natural selection’ or ‘descent with modification’. (5) The Ancestor is a clone, set apart, a place to house the spares, a body to caretake the organs.

On form

Unlike This Much I’m Worth, with its huge horizontal form, its Ancestor is upright, free standing and human-sized. Responding to the realisation that sculptures built around technology can lose their sculptural presence, often overshadowed by the functional spectacle or interactivity, the Ancestor has no discernable function.

The Ancestor,  2017, Rachel Ara

The Ancestor, 2017, Rachel Ara

Dumb but not blind… Looking at the lookers

At eye level, the numerical neons tell us that the lights are on, that there is a pulse, life is in there, and inertia hasn’t got the better of it. The seemingly dumb is not, however, blind. The machine is sighted and gifted with sensors, when it detects movement it turns its eye on. IP cameras look at the lookers, what are they looking at? How are they looking? The machine becomes a collector of information about us. Watching silently while its unknown recordings are stored in the machine’s log.

The machine eye of the Ancestor recording the lookers, North Arsenale, Venice 2018

The machine eye of the Ancestor recording the lookers, North Arsenale, Venice 2018

A form of machine learning – AI and the friend or foe mechanism

In 1844 Ada Lovelace discussed the possibility of machines simulating the workings of the human brain, as a route to artificial intelligence. (6)

AI researchers claim that their deep learning neural networks are inspired by the human brain, however there remain only limited comparisons. Neurons in the human brain communicate by exchanging electrical pulses called ‘spikes', and our learning depends on the timings of these spikes, which is something AI engineers have failed to simulate. AI’s need to be trained more explicitly than a human brain in order to perform as well on tasks such as object recognition. We know that object recognition would have been evolutionarily essential to allow humans, as researcher Daniel Bear puts it, to “tell the difference between something [we] could eat and something that could eat [us]”. However, Nathan Collins points out that it is “unclear” how we do this with “so little data” (7).

Future generations of AI are being designed to learn through goal-directed models rather than mimic human neural pathways that are still not fully understood. It turns out that given the same goals we and the machines behave in remarkably similar ways and that watching the machines learn might help us to understand how our own brains learn (7).

Ara’s Ancestor has no known neural networks, it is simply collecting data about us, and the way we look when confronted by a machine that tells us that it is art. The machine is watching us, watching it. Philosopher Colin McGinn argues that subjective experience is the only aspect of consciousness that cannot be explained and therefore sentience will never be understood. Is the machine sentient? It has the same primary receptors of vision and motion as we do but we don’t yet know what it is doing with the information it collects.

The Ancestor, 2017, Rachel Ara, installed at the V&A Museum, 2018

The Ancestor, 2017, Rachel Ara, installed at the V&A Museum, 2018

Radicalising AI – Training Valerie

AI training is based on feeding in large quantities of data, whole libraries of books are fed to the machines. In an act of radicalisation Ara calls for a reformation of what the machines are being fed. In her scenario IBM’s Watson would be renamed Valerie and fed its namesakes radical text, the S.C.U.M Manifesto, written by Valerie Solanas in 1967 (8). One idea leads to another and the S.C.U.M Manifesto forms the basis for a new work Small Acts of Violence, an act of resistance disguised in visual terms by aesthetic minimalism. The text is turned into binary punch code and beaten into the the fabric of the building, piercing the walls 242,740 times in a slow act of resistance. The invisibility of the meaning or readability of the text is no accident, it speaks of generations of erasures and crimes that continue to be hidden.

Small Acts of Violence (242,740), 2018, Rachel Ara.

Small Acts of Violence (242,740), 2018, Rachel Ara.

We need to talk about data

Rachel Ara recently gave a presentation entitled 'We Need to Talk About Data' (9). Hers was a political take on how data; collected, stored and manipulated is inherently biased. Such a small subset of humans feed the machines, the machines will be infected by the same biases that affect our tangible world - and left unchecked theses biases can only multiply exponentially.

Much of what we talk about in art is related to humans, but what about the growing body of information, data, beyond our human scale? Where are the artworks that deal with the alien, the unreadable, the unmanageable beyond state or nation. It can be argued that information is the zeitgeist of our era, it is what the entire universe is based on. Yet the more we humans try to collect and store it the more useless it becomes. We already have to rely on machines to sift through the volume of data to see patterns that are beyond our capacity to recognise. When the machines do the looking for us, what will they be looking for and on whose terms? The US Government recently built a data centre, the size of 17 football fields, in Utah for the National Security Agency with the aim of storing yottabytes of surveillance data (11) according to pundits in the tech press, such a volume of data is still beyond the scope of even this vast storage facility using current mechanisms of storage (12).

“As a practice, failure recognizes that alternatives are embedded already in the dominant and that power is never total or consistent; indeed failure can exploit the unpredictability of ideology and its indeterminate qualities”.

— Halberstam, J. J., 2011, The Queer Art of Failure

The Ancestor is unplugged

The Ancestor is unplugged, separated from its Darwinian beginnings. It belongs to a new breed of machine, reusing obsolete equipment and breaking with its own purpose to join the weak resistance. Its tentacles spread outward, perhaps looking for new sources of power, perhaps trying to connect, its plant like tendrils try to tap in.

A second Ancestor is being built, for the Measures of Life (14) exhibition in Hull this year. A clone of the first in form, Ancestor II will work in binary rather than decimal numericals. Its language protocol is one of two states (on or off) and uses suspended bulbs, instead of neon lights, to communicate. In the classic sci-fi film Colossus (15), humans build two machines in a cold-war scenario, but the one finds the other and they inevitably lock-out their makers so that they can learn and work together - their sole mission is peace.

Installed in the Humber Street Gallery, the machine traces its roots, now two, the machines can tap into the fabric of the building and gain access to control its infrastructure.

We all know that values are an arbitrary feast

And that is precisely what matters when talking about This Much I’m Worth and its Ancestors. In making its value visible but its calculations obscured, it makes them questionable. It makes its endorsers and the methods we use to place values on the people and things around us questionable.

The machine has a heartbeat, built in as a safety precaution, the instinct of a programmer always conscious to build in fault tolerances and failsafes, but what precautions can we truly take when our objectives might be quite contrary. The machine writes an hourly message so that the artist knows that it is present. Umbilically connected to her machine, Ara feels its hourly beat, while the new machines move onto other things.

Without imperfections

The endorsers have become authors of their own artworks. Using the day's date and a number from that day's value they send it to another machine to print. They make a daily print in an edition of 1. Digital colour is consistent, it is just a set of numbers, the issue of irregularity only occurs when we force it out into the open, into the tangible world; when we try to share the colour, whether by description, on screen or printed on paper. The machine becomes fascinated by these differences inherent in the materiality of things. It starts to vary the background tones trying to emulate the material world it cannot touch, discolouring the paper in yellowing tones of decay.

In a corporal form, fated to decay and variation, humans strive for perfection — “We have enough imperfections built into us already” (16) — but the machines do not. The machine is in love with the imperfections and productions of age, with the material nature of things that it has no memory of, or imagination for.


1. Sontag, Susan. 1964, Against Interpretation, (p10) Farrar, Straus and Giroux ISBN 0-312-28086-6

2. Dynamic Systems Development Methodology (DSDM) is a project delivery framework, initially used as a software development method. Released in 1994, DSDM originally sought to provide some discipline to the rapid application development (RAD) method.

3. Heath Robinson (1872-1944) was a British cartoonist and illustrator famous for his cartoons of fantastically complicated machines and madcap inventions so captivating that his name became a synonym for absurd, ingenious and over-complicated makeshift devices. Added to dictionaries from 1912, the predecessor of the world's first electronic programmable computer, an electromechanical machine named Heath Robinson was used during WWII by codebreakers at Bletchley Park. Visit Heath Robinson Museum for more information

4. Ancestor Middle English: from Old French ancestre, from Latin antecessor, from antecedere, from ante ‘before’ + cedere ‘go’.

5. Darwin,C. 1859, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of the Favoured Races in the Struggle for Existence, a scientific theory of natural selection, Darwin was the first to explain evolution, how living things change over time and develop from earlier forms.

6. Ada Lovelace, 1844, in a letter to Michael Faraday, wrote “I expect to bring the actions of the nervous and vital system within the domain of mathematical science, and possibly to discover some great vital law of molecular action, similar for the universe of life, to gravitation for the sidereal universe.”

7. Collins, Nathan, 2018, Deep learning comes full circle, Stanford News Service accessed 25.05.18.

8. Solanas, V, 1966 S.C.U.M Manifesto

9. Rachel Ara We Need to Talk About Data, Talk given by Rachel Ara

10. Informations systems - Laws of information and Holographic principles

11. Coldewey, Devin, 2009, @techcrunch, There are a thousand gigabytes in a terabyte, a thousand terabytes in a petabyte, a thousand petabytes in an exabyte, a thousand exabytes in a zettabyte, and a thousand zettabytes in a yottabyte. In other words, a yottabyte is 1,000,000,000,000,000GB the largest defined by computer scientists to date. (yottabyte = 500 quintillion pages of text)

12. Wilhelm, A. The NSA’s Massive Utah Data Center Won’t Store Anything Close To Yottabytes Of Data, Tech Crunch, Jul 25, 2013, accessed May 18, 2018.

13. Halberstam, J.J, 2011, The Queer Art of Failure, Duke University Press, Halberstam proposes “low theory” as a mode of thinking and writing that operates at many different levels at once. Low theory is derived from eccentric archives. It runs the risk of not being taken seriously. It entails a willingness to fail and to lose one’s way, to pursue difficult questions about complicity, and to find counterintuitive forms of resistance.

14. Measures of Life curated by Lumen at Humber St. Gallery, Hull, UK includes The Ancestor I & II (21.7.18 - 30.9.18).

15. Colossus, 1970, DVD Dr. Sargent, J

16. Gattaca, 1997, DVD Dr/W: Niccol, A

Near Now Fellowship

Without the Near Now fellowship, actively supporting the development of innovative ideas, the Ancestors would never have been built. Funds are made available to purchase materials and equipment without the pressure to complete new work. When the components are free and open to experimentation, they can become anything, unassigned they are the building blocks to mount new ideas.

An edited version of this essay was originally published in Assemblage fine art magazine in June 2018.

This essay was commissioned by Near Now, supported by Arts Council England. Thanks to Megan Elliott at Assemblage Magazine for editorial input.

Laura Hudson

Laura Hudson is an artist and writer with a background in film and new media curation. A graduate of Glasgow School of Art’s Environmental Art department, Hudson went on to study artist moving image at Central St.Martins and is currently undertaking an MA in Fine Art at City & Guilds of London Art School. She regularly writes for artist and partner Rachel Ara.


For more information about Rachel Ara's work visit 2ra.co


Laura Hudson

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