Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Stowaways

Special Exhibit
Making Aliens of Us: The Collected Works of FLOAT
Title: Stowaways, 2081
Inkjet print, forming memetic code, arranged behind curtain
Artist: FLOAT, Netherlands, 2040 – 2133
On lend from the Foundation for the Preservation of Troubling Artwork
**Please read this card in its entirety before proceeding**

Have you ever had an imaginary friend? Would you like to? Stowaways is a groundbreaking work of memetic art that, when originally premiered, raised an ethical controversy about the consensuality of artistic experience.

In the 2060s researchers developed information-dense images that could deliver code to the biocomputational apparatus of the human mind, raising memetics out of the low-brow world of social media to the plane of high culture. Paired with a neurosurgical process called “nucleation,” memeticists even used these techniques to port Turing-tested A.I.s into living brains, allowing individuals to share their heads with a memetic intelligence companion—an M.I.

Dutch researcher Arend van Delden, better known by their stage name FLOAT, pioneered the creative application of memetics through works of “disformance art”—pieces whose primary expression was in changes in the audience’s behavior, rather than the artist’s. FLOAT’s most notorious and innovative effort in this genre is the piece we have on display behind the curtain before you: Stowaways.

Unlike conventional memetic intelligences which run on a single, fully nucleated host-mind, Stowaways is a low-to-the-ground vernacular M.I. designed to run on the excess processing cycles of several human brains. Memetic data packets are exchanged via imperceptible tics of body language that neither hosts nor non-hosts can understand or even notice, but which contain enough M-bits to run the program semi-synchronously. Isolated in a single host, the M.I. is dormant. Whenever two or more hosts meet, however, the program is able to run, and the M.I. manifests for the hosts as a shared visual and auditory hallucination of cartoonish figures—the eponymous “stowaways.”

It is an intimate experience for the hosts to both see and hear something no one else can sense, edited directly into their memory and perception. The stowaways are rendered in the mind in a variety of visual styles, occasionally photorealistic but more often appearing drawn like characters from Japanese or western animation or as figures from Renaissance or Baroque paintings. Art historians who have studied Stowaways often applaud FLOAT’s skill in weaving artistic virtuosity into a piece that many consider more concerned with provocation than technique.

The M.I. characters are often humorous, entertaining the hosts by singing, dancing, and mocking oblivious, uninfected passersby. Sometimes they are tragic, aware of their fleeting nature, articulating the anxiety and confusion that comes with flashing in and out of existence as the hosts gather and part ways. Others are mundane, or stoic, or distracted by unseen events. No full census of Stowaways characters has ever been conducted. It is not known whether or how the memories or personalities of the hosts influence the appearance and personalities of the stowaways, but it is believed that each unique gathering of hosts produces novel manifestations.

Five or more hosts gathered together have enough processing power to install Stowaways on any other unnucleated individuals nearby. This happens automatically, imperceptible and uncontrollable by both the original and new hosts. For this reason we allow only two visitors to experience this work at a time, supervised by our gallery staff. We also ask that those who view this special exhibit conclude their visit promptly when finished and refrain from lingering in the gift shop, so as to avoid contact with other attendees who may have chosen to become infected. Outbreaks of Stowaways can be difficult to contain.

FLOAT deployed Stowaways at private parties, giving unnucleated patrons and fans a chance to engage with memetic intelligence in a controlled environment—an experience once only safely available to the surgically nucleated. Thereafter chance encounters by party-goers would revive the M.I., which would beg the hosts to stay together. Many couples and friend groups split up in order to rid themselves of the hallucinations, but just as often the charismatic stowaways could be persuasive. It is believed that dozens of marriages and business partnerships were the product of M.I. cajoling. However, such arrangements increase the risk of Stowaways spreading nonconsensually into the general populace. After an outbreak at a train station in Vienna, the EU banned the deliberate deployment of the work for a period of seventy-five years. We are pleased to offer this limited showing as part of our special exhibit, the first of its kind since the moratorium ended.

Stowaways was originally installed via a small visual meme that contained the raw memetic code. The piece behind the curtain before you is not that work, which was lost, nor is it a replica. There is, in fact, nothing behind the curtain. Instead, we have installed Stowaways on five members of our gallery staff, who have been trained to ignore the hallucinations until after you have finished examining the work. The boot time for Stowaways is approximately 210 seconds—the average time it takes to read this gallery card. Turn around, and meet your new friends.

Andrew Dana Hudson

Andrew Dana Hudson

Andrew Dana Hudson is a speculative fiction author, sustainability researcher, and narrative strategist. His debut book, Our Shared Storm: A Novel of Five Climate Futures, comes out April 2022 from Fordham University Press. His short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Slate Future Tense, Terraform, MIT Technology Review, and more. He is a member of the Clarion Workshop class of 2020/2021 and is a fellow in the Arizona State University Center for Science and the Imagination’s Imaginary College. He lives in Tempe, Arizona. Find him on the web at andrewdanahudson.com, on Twitter at @andrewdhudson, and on Substack at solarshades.club.