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  • Writer's pictureAfroditi Psarra

Ventriloquist Ontology

Ventriloquist Ontology explores the limits of control and hybridization between human and machine through the relationship of a performer and a wearable entity. This entity articulates text generated using the GPT-2 language model, trained on a dataset of texts around biopolitics, algo-governance, the surveillanced body, and queer theory, and manifests itself by producing involuntary movement through a series of linear actuators. The concept of ventriloquism is used to give agency to an ontological entity composed of subtle suggestive wearable modules, human flesh, and cognitive motor abilities, born-digital, able to produce novel language, but also conditioned to reproduce the biases of its algorithmic parts.

Ventriloquist Ontology mini-documentary filmed at the Instrument Inventors Initiative (iii) in The Hague, NL

Performer: Tingyi Jiang

Videographers: Tanja Busking and Francesco Enriquez

Research assistants: Sadaf Sadri (GPT-2) and James Wenlock (BLE + SuperCollider)


Project description

The continuous implementation of AI and ML systems in all areas of technological artifacts, including art, is challenging the ways in which we understand the world around us and urge us to consider other-than-human entities and ‘objects’ as equally important as human beings. In an exploration of such philosophical ideas that stem from the realms of Posthumanism, Actor Network Theory and Object-Oriented Ontology, ‘Ventriloquist Ontology’ encompasses the creation of a modular wearable, trained using Natural Language Processing to create its own personality that manifests in the form of speech and movement actuation. It explores the limits of control and points of hybridization between the human and the machine through the relationship of a performer and a wearable entity. This

ventriloquist modular soft entity speaks through text generated using a GPT-2 language model, trained on a dataset of texts around biopolitics, algo-governance, the surveillanced body, and queer theory. Inspired by Alejandro Jodorowsky's dystopian theatrical play The School of Ventriloquists, this project manifests the idea of ‘soft control’ through the creation of a wearable that takes over the wearer's body and converts them into a puppet whose movement is dictated by what they wear.

Performer Tingyi Jiang being controlled by the robotic actuators. Images by Afroditi Psarra


The softness aspect of this control refers to the plasticity of the interface, the malleability of its hardware connections (mainly soft silicones wires), the suggestive nature that the GPT-2 generated text pertains to, and the indicative nature of the movement of the actuators (some of them rather than radically moving the body, offer a suggestion as to how the body can follow their rhythm of actuation). Sequentially, it brings forth the soft data of the body inextricably linked to ideas of care and intimacy, as well as to the pliability of the different levels of interpretation between the human and the machine. The aspect of control is tied to the cybernetic idea of steering the body to its optimal movement through a feedback loop between machinic language, and human assimilation. It also deals with the hardness of the linear actuators and the microcontrollers that manipulate them, to the domination of these mechanical components over the softness and vulnerability of the human flesh. It asserts the supervision of the artist over the system, on the curation of the content of both the generated text, and its performative aspect. Ultimately, the idea of ventriloquism is used to give agency to an ontological entity comprised of subtle suggestive wearable modules, human flesh, and cognitive motor abilities, born-digital, able to produce novel language, but also conditioned to reproduce the biases of its algorithmic parts.


Project Origination/History The first seeds of the project were planted during the "Experiments with Algo-governance and Future-Making" workshop at the 4S-EASST Conference 2020 entitled "Locating and Timing Matters: Significance and Agency of STS in Emerging Worlds". During the workshop I presented the first draft of the idea to other colleagues that were taking part of the workshop and discussed the philosophical aspects of linking the theories of Posthumanism, Actor Network Theory and Object-Oriented Ontology with AI and biopolitics through hands-on electronics and performance.

Initial thoughts of how the wearable system would interface with the robotic actuators and the AI-generated text - diagram presented at the 4S conference


A year later on September 2021 during a one-month residency at the Instrument Inventors Initiative (iii) in The Hague, Netherlands I developed the wearable prototype with the embedded linear actuators, trained a custom GPT-2 model with my collection of texts around the topics of biopolitics, algo-governance, the surveillanced body, and queer theory and generated the "language" for the wearable AI model, and created the graphical user interface that controls the movement of the actuators and the playback of the newly generated-texts using text-to-speech. For a complete technical documentation of the project visit: https://github.com/afrdt/Ventriloquist-Ontology

SuperCollider GUI to controls AI-generated text playback and movement of the robotic actuators. Developed with James Wenlock


I also did an open call for performers and ended up selecting media artist Tingyi Jiang to collaborate with me. At the end of the residency period we rehearsed with the newly created system and did a local short performance in The Hague.

Snippets from the iii performance at The Hague with Tingyi Jiang. Images by Afroditi Psarra


In the context of the iii residency in The Hague, I also instructed a public-facing workshop entitled Algo-bodies: Identity, language and body actuation where participants could experiment hands-on with the idea of body control. In this 12-hour long workshop participants explored the use of wearable technology and speech-to-text application programming interfaces such as the Google AIY kit, while discussing ideas around the construction of identity around our bodies, and how algorithms dictate our movement through space. The participants worked together in groups and created performative experiments by actuating each other’s bodies.


Snippets of the projects created at the Algo-Bodies workshop at iii in The Hague. Images by Afroditi Psarra

Since then I have presented the performance in its current form several times at national and international venues, namely in a DXARTS concert in Seattle on February 2022, at the AEF (Athens and Epidavrous Festival) x CTM (Club Transmediale) festival in Athens, Greece and ISEA (International Symposium of Electronic Art) 2022 in Barcelona, Spain on June 2022.

Ventriloquist Ontology performance at the Meany Theater in Seattle with performer Carolina Marin

In September 2022 I developed a video version of the piece which formed part of PCAI's (Polygreen Contemporary Art Initiative) "Sheltered Gardens" exhibition in Athens, Greece and virtually. The video version is a limited edition of 5 copies, and one was purchased by PCAI, and now forms part of their video art collection.

Video stills of performer Tingyi Jiang

This video performance will also be presented at the Foreign Object's Intelligence Unbound exhibition:

Ventriloquist Ontology video performance excerpt



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