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Alchemic Eternity: Rethinking Pluriverses and Digital Infrastructures in Taoist Cosmology

online project 2022
Congle Fu & Kexin Hong

Taoism has been prevalent as a faith in ancient China for a remarkably long time, prominently embedded in the pursuit of eternal life by the ancient emperors. Unlike other influential religious beliefs, in Taoist conception, death does not denote resurrection and reincarnation but only a dead end, the pursuit of eternity was therefore important in Chinese culture. One particular form of pursuing immortality is alchemy—the taking of external elixirs to prolong life. The concept of Chinese alchemy and eternity is intrinsically related with Chinese geomany (Eight Trigrams) in the I Ching, which establish the particular cosmology in ancient Chinese culture. Eight Trigrams is a metaphysics for understanding the complexity of the universe, involving the concepts of yin and yang, Chinese astrology and the five elements Wuxing (Metal, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth). The essence of such cosmology is to understand the laws of the universe—seeing the universe as a dynamic network of interconnections—and to forecast the movement of things by constructing a mental model, which enables an alternative cosmology to understand our relationship with the natural and artificial environment that breaks away from the modern dichotomy.

This online project tries to juxtapose the five elements with the computational algorithm. The mutually constrained and generated relationship among the five elements in Taoist cosmology brings about an extremely sophisticated system of computational speculation, placing the laws of universal and planetary conservation, the natural tidal flood and the experiences of our ancestors into constellations. Such a model of computational mindset is akin to the neural network system in contemporary algorithms— the neural network is divided into independent neurons that are mutually generated and suppressed. The operation between neurons is, like the relationship among the five elements, the operation of activation and suppression.

An additional thread of the proposal is to rethink the shape of technological infrastructures in a post-colonial and post- media era through the concept of “format” to activate dynamics across social, geopolitical and infrastructural boundaries. The semantics of “format” can refer to certain material characteristics of media objects, but it can also describe the structural or programmatic relationships between individual elements and their organizational logic. The format of a technological network is an extension of geopolitics and localized phenomenon. Reflecting on particular technological objects—such as the Raspberry Pi—must be understood on the level of the network and localization.

How to explore alternative manifestation of networks in relation to specific technical objects in Taoist cosmology? We envision this process as the Taoist alchemical universe, exploring the possible dialogues among different knowledges, cosmologies and technologies through the concept of the five elements and Eight Trigrams. Therefore, we will use the digital material to begin our specific practice starting from time. One specific element under the computation of the Eight Trigrams will be generated and introduced each week based on time. The different elements will be connected to related mythologies and allegories. These narratives have their own different histories, backgrounds, and geographical relationships, and they are intrinsically connected and constrained. In the final presentation, how the presentation platform works within our project will initiate a second round of discussion through the geopolitical and localized lens. In fiction and technological networks we find the eternity that lies only in dynamics.

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