Sahej Rahal, Antraal, 2019
Sahej Rahal’s works aim to construct new narratives – even new worlds. His latest work Juggernaut – a video game populated by AI controlled objects and a consistent continuation of his first video game Dissonant Mythologies – is an attempt to bring his Walker sculptures to life. Borrowing the philosophical term »apperception,« Sahej Rahal testifies playfully the process by which the experience of the objects triggered by impulses like movement and sound assimilates and transforms a future experience. The nonplayable characters in Juggernaut enter a continuous loop of learning cycles. What if these objects begin to think one day? What if the objects of this fictional virtual world make a passage into the real world? Here he speaks about the development of Juggernaut and how this game is another way of sculpting the world.
My work can be seen as a form of world-building, where the artifacts of a fictional universe are populated by strange beings and their absurd tools and totems, slipping through the cracks into our world, refashioning everyday detritus to take its own physical form. It can be seen as »speculative metafiction,« where the imagined contends with the real. Consequentially the objects of this fictional world become »vessels of narrative potential« that weave together performances, fictitious ethnographic documentaries, and sculptural installations. Now I have a proposition to ask of this unfolding narrative structure. What if one day, these »vessels of narrative potential« become active participants in shaping this world, beyond the form I give them? Or more crudely put, what if these objects could begin to think?
»What if one day, these »vessels of narrative potential« become active participants in shaping this world, beyond the form I give them?«
This brings us to the strange world of video games. In July this year, I created a game called Juggernaut. It allows a player to control an organic bloblike form in a stark desert littered with the debris of some long-forgotten architecture. As players move through the space, they can collect parts of this debris by attaching it to the blob, creating sculptural forms similar to my Walker sculptures.
Expanding on the Juggernaut environment and it’s mythos, Ive recently developed two more simulation programs; Antraal (interstice) and Shrota (listener). In these simulations you will see a creatures wandering strange biomes. In Antraal, we find massive quadruped that lets out a procedurally generated drone based on its ‘mood’ as it wanders about and interacts with other creatures in the biome which can sometimes hostile towards it. This quadruped as a sentient musical instrument that produces sound based on a chaotic series of interactions with its environment. In Shrota, you see a horned biped wandering a moonlit terrain, this creature responds to audio cues by picking up sounds from the computer’s microphone, and moves based on these sounds. The two scenes are framed by an AI-controlled camera that reacts to the movements of the creatures like a virtual anthropologist/amateur documentarian. Furthermore, when the two programs are played simultaneously, the biped in Shrota moves to the sounds of the lumbering quadruped in Antraal.
Nowadays, most video games are populated by AI-controlled objects called nonplayable characters (NPCs). NPCs appear as dragons, goblins or giant killer robots in most games, posing obstacles for players to overcome by reacting to the behavior of the players in the game.
As I studied the manner in which these NPCs are programmed, I started to see a complex network of interlinked behavioral commands that direct the NPCs to move around in the game world. These commands range from controlling simple movements to more complex actions like chasing or attacking the player. Once all these commands are combined, the NPCs get distinct personalities, allowing them to think and react to a player’s actions in unpredictable ways. A stealthy player may make the NPCs react cautiously, while an aggressive one would have to face more aggression. This helps to heighten the sense of immersion of a player within the game world, depending on their style of play.
It was here that I was struck with a strange thought. What would happen if these NPCs are brought to the forefront of the game world, setting them free from the task of reacting to the player’s inputs/movements/style? What narratives would they be capable of sharing, once they are active catalysts and participants in the unraveling of a story? With this, I decided to create Juggernaut, and after a few messy rounds of programming, created an AI program for Juggernaut or »Juggy« as I named it while writing the code. Each time the program is run, the AI-driven Juggy perceives virtual space, choosing the objects it would pick up, and then learning to use these pieces it has picked up as limbs, overcoming various restrictions to its movement.
»Through its strange movement and actions in the game world, the AI-driven juggernaut becomes capable of performing an apperception towards the fictional landscape that it finds itself in, and also capable of a creative impulse within this environment.«
If Juggernaut is allowed to run for an extended period of time, it produces unforeseeable sculptural forms, creating new forms each time the simulation is run. The cascading series of actions come confoundingly close to »Apperception« – a peculiar term coined by the philosopher, René Descartes in his »Passions of the Soul.« Stemming from its Latin root, percipere, meaning »to perceive, secure, learn, or feel,« was later expanded upon by Immanuel Kant into two categories of empirical and transcendental apperception. Kant described the former as self-consciousness along with its changing states, and the latter as a unified consciousness, a necessary condition for all experiences. Apperception became one of the founding pillars for humanist thought.
Sahej Rahal, Shrota, 2019
Philosopher Dagobert D. Runes further popularized the usage of apperception in modern psychology as »the process by which new experience is assimilated to and transformed by the residuum of past experience of an individual to form a new whole,«  in his Dictionary of Philosophy, 1942. Through its strange movement and actions in the game world, the AI-driven juggernaut becomes capable of performing an apperception towards the fictional landscape that it finds itself in, and also capable of a creative impulse within this environment. Now while these two forms of being find themselves firmly situated within the human paradigm, our magenta tentacled friend is anything but human.
In his two-part essay »The Labor of the Inhuman,« philosopher Reza Negarestani writes:
»Inhumanism is the extended practical elaboration of humanism; it is born out of a diligent commitment to the project of enlightened humanism. As a universal wave that erases the self-portrait of man drawn in sand, inhumanism is a vector of revision. It relentlessly revises what it means to be human by removing its supposed evident characteristics and preserving certain invariances. At the same time, inhumanism registers itself as a demand for construction, to define what it means to be human by treating human as a constructible hypothesis, a space of navigation and intervention.« 
Let us consider Negarestani’s proposition from the vantage of Juggernaut. Within the simulation, the Juggy AI finds itself plopped into a desert landscape littered with three-dimensional models of pillars and scurries towards them, awkwardly bumping into the violet mountainsides that block its path. With each bump, it reassesses its path, turns around, and makes another attempt, all the while learning not only the shape of the world it finds itself in, but also becoming aware of the extent of its own faculties.
Sahej Rahal, Shaolin breakdancer Fabian, 2019
When it finally lands upon a pillar, it clings to Juggy, posing an impediment in its movement, and essentially forcing it to throw away all the learning that has happened until this point, and revise. Soon we see Juggy learning to turn the pillars that cling to it as limbs, and use them to prop itself up. In time, it learns to scale the violet cliffs that first got in its way. Each time the program is reset, Juggy takes a different path, picking up new limbs, and constructing itself into new forms that are specific to each simulated »incarnation.« Yet Juggy is able to »live« out these incarnations, beyond the basic movement functions in its code, and in doing so, emulates a version of Negarestani’s Inhumanism, firstly in its own cycle of learning and unlearning as it totters about the digital desert.
Second and more confoundingly, as it procedurally creates new sculptural forms upon itself with a chaotic creative drive that is alien to the systems that govern it. The AI-driven Juggernaut becomes »sentient« at the speculative boundaries of sentience, where the self and the construct begin to entangle.
- Dagobert D. Runes, Dictionary of Philosophy, 1942.
- Reza Negarestani, »The Labor of the Inhuman, Part I: Human« in: e-flux Journal #52, February 2014, https://www.e-flux.com/journal/52/59920/the-labor-of-the-inhuman-part-i-human.