“The purpose of an encyclopedia is to collect knowledge disseminated around the globe, to set forth its general system to the men with whom we live, and transmit it to those who will come after us,” writes Denis Diderot, editor of the 18th-century Encyclopédie, in the entry for “encyclopedia.” An emblem of Enlightenment thinking, the Encyclopédie was not the first of its genre, but it remains one of the most influential. Among its distinguishing characteristics was an ambition, per Diderot, “to change the way people think.” The Encyclopédie achieved this in part through its critiques of academic authority and its unorthodox curation of topics, such as entries on the “mechanical arts,” which had been dismissed as base and vulgar since antiquity.
Later in the text, Diderot compares the sum of human knowledge to a machine. “The larger and more complicated the machine, the more connections there are between its parts, the less we know these connections, the more different perspectives for description there will be,” he states. “What, then, if the machine is in every sense infinite; if we are speaking of the real universe and the intelligible universe, or a work which is like the imprint of both?” Given that this machine was immense and nonfinite, Diderot argued, the task of its representation necessitated continuous revision.
A lot has happened since the 1751 publication of the first volume of the Encyclopédie. Kings lost their heads; academies, their authority. Diderot and his fellow Encyclopédistes bear some blame for both. Even if not all the contributors were revolutionaries, the overall vibe was anti-establishment. Like all things, the Encyclopédie also lost some of its edge with time. Meanings change alongside know-how, as does the direction of revolutionary impulse. By the early 20th century, for a certain milieu of avant-gardist thinkers, the Encyclopédie was representative of an institutional drive to hierarchize knowledge and fix interpretation. In reaction, these artists, writers, and philosophers produced a series of editorial projects that could be described as “anti-encyclopedias,” which has since become something of its own literary genre—or perhaps, a recurrent impulse.
Machines, of course, have grown in complexity and utility over the years, and with them, the volume of knowledge produced and accumulated by humans. The most widely used encyclopedia today is likely Wikipedia, a constantly growing archive with a contributor base that numbers in the millions, facilitated by an open-source framework for compiling entries. Although it sources its entries from legions of geographically distributed volunteers, Wikipedia isn’t all that different from a traditional encyclopedia. It still has editors and fact-checkers, and despite what your high school teacher might have said, most entries are fairly well backed-up and attributed. Wikipedia is not so much an anti-encyclopedia as a very big one, disseminated by servers rather than movable type.
The following pages, an excerpt from Sovrumana Celestialis, a forthcoming publication by the artist Andrea Avellino of the Berlin- and Milan-based creative studio New Format, sit somewhere between the encyclopedia and its antonym. Developed in collaboration with an artificial intelligence, it culls a significant chunk of humanity’s collective knowledge output—the internet—into a dataset to produce alluring, if sometimes unnerving images. From Fra Angelico to Pittura Metafisica, Dantean inferno to luxury fashion, they traverse a sort of echo-geography of potential source material, forcing the viewer into a game of interpretation and identification. Gender-ambiguous bodies merge with vegetal growth, like Adam became Eve and returned to the Garden. Elsewhere, excarnated limbs yield insectile apparitions. All of these forms, of course, are approximations made by a machine—these readings, my own. As soon as clarity begins to appear, it dissimulates, with resemblances unsettling as quickly as they emerge.
Over the phone, Avellino suggests that in generating these shadowy images, at once familiar and not, the database serves as a sort of proxy for the human unconscious. “Through the study of human reality, the AI learns the ability to transcend, to create manifestations that whisper words that are almost comprehensible to our subconscious, but inaccessible and completely new to the rational mind,” he speculates. Beyond this, Avellino refuses to guide my interpretation of the results. That’s the point.—Nicholas Korody