“Machine Learning” by Donnie Moreland
He wanted to know how a machine could do the job of memorializing the dead—our dead.
by Donnie Moreland
“Art museums are nothing more than haunted houses.” In Demetrius’s head, the words spun like a tired wheel, as he walked the corners of the room. Like a drum, Marcus’s voice bounced as though he were still alive.
“Art museums are nothing more than haunted houses. All museums are, really. But there is something wild, almost extraterrestrial about the art museum. The work we do, we leave a part of our soul on the table. It’s a vestige of my whole goddamn being, you know? Spiritual residue left over, remaining in time… no matter when you see it, or where. So when I think of an art museum… all that work… it’s nothing more than a spiritual congregation. A haunted house.”
Demetrius remembered how frail his friend was when he recorded that session at Marcus’s Montreal estate. This was about the time his robust combination of salted facial hair and dancing twists had shed completely, revealing a sunken dark face to match his poor, wilting body.
“Colon cancer is a motherfucker on the belly, boy,” Marcus used to say, wishing he could eat more than tomato soup or enjoy a whiskey sour at his studio’s bar or go for a hike, as he and Demetrius might do when the project began.
Demetrius’s pace quickened as he hustled along the walls. Impatience wasn’t the word. Quite the opposite. Demetrius was hoping to draw out whatever time was on the table, before Paul arrived.
He had never met the man. He only knew of Paul through Marcus’s tale of being cared for by an uncle after his parents were murdered, and apparently this uncle had been too young to know gym shoes from church shoes. Marcus told stories of a sensitive, but child-like man who tried his best to do with what knowledge he had of the world when no one else would take the boy in—contextual family trouble Marcus knew little of and Paul would never figure out how to contribute a history.
“Mr. Lee is here. Would you like me to send him down?” the words blared from Demetrius’s walkie talkie, gripping his feet still.
Demetrius tuned the channel, calling his assistant to prepare the rooms for presentation. He took a quite exaggerated breath, trying to shut off the projector—behind his eyes—running through each possible sequence of Paul berating, rejecting, cursing or suing him for ruining his nephew’s legacy.
Upon arrival, Paul followed one of the museum’s staff members—whose name tag read “Jerry”—from the reception desk and through the primary facilities, noting he should stop by the giftshop for his daughter’s sixth birthday.
“Anything in there worth a purchase?” Paul asked.
“I would say so.”
“Let me ask a better question. Is anything in there affordable?” Paul chuckled, following the man through a long, neon-lit corridor connecting the primary building to the first of three exhibit halls.
“I would say so, sir. At the very least, it would be worth checking out before you leave.” Jerry said, hoping his bluntness wouldn’t reflect on a customer service survey. But he’d become disinterested in his daily tasks, the last few months, and that disinterest hung from his neck like a sagging dookie chain.
But Paul was too absorbed in the neon strobe lights along the edges of the walkway to notice. The rest of the walkway was a stark, dark blue and adjacent the walkway was a soft pool of water. All of it reflected off of mirrored borders around the corridor.
“You sure this ain’t the exhibit.” Paul said, trying to keep pace with Jerry, but savoring his own awe.
“This corridor is technically a piece. The design was commissioned by an artist back in 2010, for a neon oriented showcase, and then the artist donated the piece after the reception to it.”
“Funny how things work out, huh?”
“I would say so.”
“You seen whatever this new thing is?”
“In bits and pieces. You are actually the first member of the public to be shown this exhibit.”
“Get out of here! Makes me feel kind of special, I guess.”
“I would say so, sir.”
The two descended on the end of the corridor, as a foreboding and abrasively white room grew close, and ultimately consumed them. And in that room, Paul would put a face to the man behind his speculation.
“Okay, I will leave you to it. Mr. Walker, do you need anything else?”
“No, thank you.”
Paul was still trying to let his eyes adjust to the hard, white emptiness, having just been coddled by such illuminatingly, deep color. And then there was the figure closing in the space between them.
Paul wasn’t sure how to take in Demetrius. He was a wildly bearded man, with a matching head of hair. He wore a black Lanai pullover and soft linen black pants, with sandals to match. If there was ever the imagination of an artist in Paul’s head, this was it.
Demetrius’s legs moved him towards Paul, in an exercise of conditioned professionalism, but his tongue was stone.
He had not envisioned the man, but if there was ever a descendant of Ice Cube’s branded aesthetic, this was it. Blue Jeans, a purple sports jersey and white tennis shoes, matched his perfectly trimmed goatee and sharp, Caesar haircut.
“You must be Paul. I’m Demetrius Walker. Thank you for coming.” Demetrius spat out, seemingly spited by his own mouth.
Paul brought his hand out to meet Demetrius’s.
“You gave me an excuse to leave the kids with my wife, for a few hours, so I guess I should thank you.” Paul chuckled.
“So this has to do with my nephew? All this white?”
“I know it’s a little much. The museum’s choice, more so than mine.
“Well Imma need them to make another choice.” Paul scoffed.
Not knowing how to respond, Demetrius took a breath and moved them along.
“This may seem forward, but how much do you know about Marcus’s work?”
“Not too much at all. We sort of stopped talking, after my first baby was born.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Demetrius offered, though painfully aware of the circumstances of their separation, at least as Marcus would detail.
“It was nothing bad. Just how life works out, sometimes.” Paul suggested, knowing life had little to do with him becoming a living apparition in Marcus’s world. He’d abandoned him and of no fault of Marcus’s, but for what reason, he and his therapist were still in pursuit.
“I can say, and hopefully without assuming, that you’d be very proud of Marcus–”
“I’m guessing he must have been important.” Paul interrupted. Marcus was somebody to this man, and here he was trying to wrestle Marcus’s face away from the meaning of paternal failure. Whatever that feeling, between pride and shame, he felt boiling in his windpipe.
“It’s true. Marcus was a phenomenal innovator in his craft. Did you manage to see any of his exhibits, or commercial releases?”
“You know, I am not really an art person. That’s more my wife’s thing, so you’d be teaching me.” Paul responded, hiding the indignity of avoidance behind some kind of masculine indifference.
“Well, as you kn… well, as you’ll learn, Marcus was big on how images of us should be displayed in public spaces.” Demetrius pointed between the two men, suggesting something shared. Something deep. Something temporal.
“So Marcus shot movies about Black people?” Paul asked, searching for some common language between them.
“To put it simply, yes. Well, more than that, but his subjects… what he cared most about, was Black folks.”
“Power to the people.” Paul laughed, still trying to cut through the jargon a bit.
“Indeed.” Demetrius chuckled, continuing still. “Before Marcus died… and of which, my condolences… some years before Marcus died, he reached out to me–”
“What do you do?” Paul asked, wondering what made this man someone his nephew respected enough to give over his last years with.
“I do machine learning.”
“Oh, you work with AI, huh?” Paul smirked, stirred with more intrigue.
“You could say that.”
“Yeah, I ain’t in to computers as deep as you, but I do work in IT, so I know my way around PC Mag.” Paul said, believing he’d built a bridge between the two, even if it were a fragile one.
“Trust me, my knowledge is not as robust as yours. All I do is input data into machines to teach them how to read and interpret that information and produce images. More so, experiences.”
“Dope shit, indeed.” Demetrius smiled, finding an ease of breath for the first time.
“Marcus came to an early exhibit of mine. I had taken some old wedding photographs of Black couples, from the 1940’s, and worked with a program I was using at the time to create a display, which processed the facial features of those couples and interpreted them as waves. Creating, quite literally, a moving display about love. Black love.”
“Shoot, my wife would’ve loved that.” Paul whispered, grinning and impressed.
“Marcus definitely did. And, while he didn’t know it at the time, I was a big fan of his Hands project.”
“Well, Marcus was always interested in the ways we should, or shouldn’t film, Black folks. He was very interested in privacy and the film camera as just another means of surveillance. So he did a piece where he gathered up a bunch of folks, and asked them to be as honest as possible about the question, ‘What would need to happen for you to feel free?’ The catch was he only filmed their hands. There was something about only seeing a person’s hands tell a story. Black hands. Something historical and rightfully, haunting–”
“Sounds like something.” Paul belted, confused.
Believing he was undoing his friend’s brilliance, Demetrius thought to rush along the minutia of he, and Marcus’s relationship. If Paul were to stay, he would soon enough come to understand Marcus’s impressions on this world, he believed.
“I’m sure my description isn’t doing his work any favors, but know that project was deeply moving. So… where was I… oh yes, after my exhibit, he asked me to archive our interactions. To hold onto texts, photographs, emails, whatever we sent to one another. Hell, to even record conversations we’d have. Then he was diagnosed and the work changed.”
Demetrius unclasped his walkie talkie.
“Carmen, go ahead and start the program.”
The veins on Demetrius’s neck quivered, but he was prepared. Or whatever fright dresses as, in lieu of readiness. If Paul was going to sue, for defamation of his nephew’s image, then so be it. He was well within his rights. But Demetrius could no longer anchor the affliction of hypothesis, which keeps an artist from proper labor.
The room went dark.
“What the hell y’all got going on, in here!?” Paul said, frenzied.
The middle of the room illuminated, revealing a large, timid blue square. And from that square a mass of entangled, and shifting, light blue lines emerged. A shape held together by small circular objects. The lines, which operated as wires might, bent and bounced in meditative revolutions. Their spherical make up then separated outwards, dancing around the men and making space of now multiple illuminated floor panels. The dark room was now a soft blue, taken by the whimsy of what might be described as magic.
Demetrius looked over at Paul, whose face seemed stuck on an emotion one might take for wonderment.
“Like I said, the work changed. It became about archiving Marcus. All of him. Everything he’d ever created, feared, loved and remembered, we collected. Damn near every word he spoke, for three years, we recorded. It was a massive undertaking, for us both. But we did it.”
“So what the hell am I looking at?” Paul whispered, twisting his body to find proper bearing.
“This is Marcus.”
“What the hell do you mean, this is Marcus?” Paul exclaimed, in a voice between intrigue and doubt.
“He wanted me to create an exhibit. A living exhibit, where he would be read, and recited—as he called it—in ways only a machine might be able to interpret. We were both inspired by the work of Refik Anadol, but Marcus wondered what that type of work might mean, as cultural practice. A method of cultural meditation. He wanted to know how a machine could do the job of memorializing the dead—our dead—having only the data to investigate. Of course, my team and I refined how the work would be displayed but everything shown… everything you’ll see, has been envisioned by an AI to remember Marcus.”
The room fell quiet, save a heavy breath, from either man. Demetrius endured the silence. He wouldn’t let himself remember all of what he just said, as he might have cursed his mouth for however those words might be unraveled.
“That’s damn deep, man.” Paul finally said. His hands in his pockets and his eyes on a single, dancing sphere.
“I’m sorry?” Demetrius said, shaking himself out of another web of self critique.
“So what are these things.” Paul finally asked of the floating, bulbous objects.
“A physical interpretation of words.”
“As the AI reads words, it breaks them down to data points, so to speak.”
Demetrius widened his nostrils to allow as much air in as he could muster, before letting out the next statement.
“And in truth, these words are for you.”
Paul looked at Marcus, bemused.
“What do you mean?”
“These are what’s been interpreted of letters written for you. Marcus spent time writing, before he passed—when talking was a war inside of him—and many were to you. He made it explicitly clear that the letters should be what anyone experiences first, upon initial viewing. And because of that, he demanded I invite you before any public viewing.”
Paul didn’t say anything. Didn’t seem as though he intended to.
Demetrius braced. He wondered if he had done the one thing he sought not to, with finishing Marcus’s final work: cause harm. Of course Paul wasn’t prepared for such a bombastic spectacle, he thought. Especially one made of his nephew’s literal corpse. He almost wanted Paul to hit him, which would pierce less than the dragging on of wonder.
“I recognize this may be a lot and you’re taking time to–”
“This is cool, man.” Paul whispered, massaging closed eyes to keep the tears subdued.
“Yes, sir. It certainly is.”
“How much more of this is there?”
“It’s a five room exhibit, between this and the next hall.”
“Shit, that’s quite a bit.”
“Would you mind–”
“Hey, do you mind if we turn all this off for a moment?”
“Sure!” Demetrius exclaimed, feeling spared by Paul’s interruption.
Demetrius called for his assistant to terminate the program.
In the hard white, their eyes adjusted as Paul dug for a few words, which Demetrius knew he didn’t have to. But before he could interrupt, Paul began.
“Bubba, I have a lot of regrets about how things turned out between me and Marcus. I owed him more than I gave. But I’ve had to become comfortable with what I gave. I took him in when he was a baby, when I was a baby, and I just lost my bro… hell, you ain’t my therapist. What I am getting at is that I appreciate what you’re doing here. Genuinely.”
Paul stared off into the door joining this room to the next display before saying, “but I’m just not ready.”
The two caught eyes, as Demetrius gave an affirmed head nod, reaching out his hand to shake but being pulled in, for an embrace.
“Like I said, thank you. This does… this does mean something. Something I just need some time to sit on. But what I appreciate is that people are gonna remember my nephew right. So yeah… you know my girls… yeah, you get what I’m saying.”
“I do.” Demetrius offered, softly.
The men released one another, as Demetrius called for a staff member to escort Paul to the museum entrance. But first, Paul stopped at the gift shop, about which he exclaimed, “Y’all out y’all damn minds with these prices,” before abruptly exiting.
Demetrius stood in the middle of the display floor, calling for his assistant to start the program once more. He walked from hall to hall, before coming to the exhibit’s end. The final display. The walls of the blackened room were composed of shifting photographs of Marcus, across time. Over 2500 photographs, archived, processed and arranged by Demetrius’s artificial intelligence. The images morphed into one after the next, as though they were shape shifting from moment to moment. But something was missing.
“Carmen, I don’t hear anything in the final room.” Demetrius said, radioing his assistant to resolve the auditory error. Ironically, he found some emotional consolation in not having had Paul witness such oversight. And then he heard that voice. Marcus in communion with him, once more.
“You know, the one thing I can’t get over is losing this. Sitting with my friend. Laughing with my friend. Shit… yeah, I can’t face that one yet…”
Demetrius felt his stomach being pulled, downward. He’d grown accustomed to every inch of this exhibit, and yet something about those words, this time, felt otherworldly. As though he were supposed to say something, in response. Demetrius wrapped his arms around his sternum, holding himself together, before turning off his walkie talkie and enjoying what Marcus would call, “a good cry.” One for himself and the second, for Paul.
Demetrius thought to call Carmen to cease the program’s operations, but instead he took a seat on the floor. He just wanted to be with his friend, so he listened. He watched Marcus’s life, and he listened. He then found himself laughing, at a passing thought.
“Paul was right,” he thought. “Those rooms are too damn white.”
Donnie Denkins Moreland Jr is a Minnesota based youth violence prevention educator and writer. Donnie holds a Master’s Degree, in Film Studies, from National University and a Bachelor’s Degree, in Sociology, from Prairie View A&M University. Donnie has contributed to Black Youth Project, A Gathering of the Tribes and Sage Group Publishing.