Light Art Space gGmbH

Exhibition Booklet GORGON

Presented by LAS Art Foundation

13 – 17 Sept 2023


GORGON is a 'flute opera' that explores love, envy, power and empathy in the age of machine learning. Unfolding through sound, light and movement, artist Marianna Simnett's stage debut brings together collaborators from the fields of music and stage performance, set and costume design, artificial intelligence (Al) technology and choreography. The ambitious work elaborates a dynamic engagement with Al both formally and allegorically, offering a profound look at the horror and beauty of society in transition.

Simnett has become known for an artistic practice that tests the boundaries of her subjects and media. Working across moving image, painting, sculpture and performance, she mobilises the storytelling techniques of fairy tales and myths as entry points to thinking through complex social relations. Her works look at identities in transition, and confront difficult questions about desire, death, power, gender, the body and the Other.

In her 2022 exhibition OGRESS at Société in Berlin, Simnett delved into historic associations between women and monstrosity and their shared affiliation with insatiable hunger. The artist keyed into the ancient Greek myth of Athena's double flute, which the deity invents and later renounces after other gods mock her facial disfiguration when she plays.

The exhibition marked Simnett's first use of machine learning as a medium in the form of a morphing video generated by an Al model trained on videos of the artist playing a modern-day flute. Embracing the "promises of monsters," OGRESS opens onto a broader look at monsters as social constructions that speak to cultural fears and yearnings alike.

With GORGON, Simnett expands her engagement with Al as an artistic medium, and as a near-mythological entity shaped by an increasing amount of anxiety and desire. The work draws on the origins of the word 'gorgon,' which comes from the Ancient Greek word 'gorgós,' meaning dreadful. It is thought to derive from the same root as the Sanskrit word 'garjana,' describing a growling sound produced in the back of the throat. The performance returns to an earlier point in Athena's mythology to explore her creation of 'the Gorgon,' the gendering of sound, and Athena's motivation for inventing the double flute.

GORGON transports the Gorgon myth into a contemporary fairy tale. It centres on Greta, a girl working the night shift at a train station doughnut stand, and Gorgon, a shape-shifting entity whose piercing wail can shake the ground. One night, the drudgery of Greta's job propels her into a vision of being a corporate queen, presiding over an office at the edge of a forest. She becomes set on harnessing the power of Gorgon's harrowing cry, and sends her cherubic intern Hans out in pursuit of this inscrutable adversary. When he fails to return, Greta ventures into the deep woods and encounters an array of uncanny creatures, including a girl trapped in the body of a dog. A chorus of fireflies lures Greta into mimicking Gorgon's wail, which brings the two face-to-face. Greta's tools prove incompatible with Gorgon's world, and she is impelled to relinquish her desire to own and control it. Her body and ego slowly become subsumed to larger forces. Transfixed, transformed and tangled, Greta and Gorgon finally come to see one another's vulnerability.

Mimicry and metamorphosis emerge as key themes in GORGON, developed across the work's sonic, visual and psychological registers. Simnett thinks through the significance of mimicry as an iteration of the other in the self, a relationship predicated on difference and proximity. She draws on its operation within the natural and social world, from animal mimicry to processes of entertainment. She also explores its importance to music and technology, from the Neolithic flute that mimicked the sound of birds to neural networks mimicking the way that biological neurons signal to one another. Formally, these themes manifest through Simnett's work with Al in sound and video generation.

“I am not telling the classical ancient Greek myth of the Gorgon. I'm catapulting it into the present as it resonates strongly with how I feel as a body living in the world today. One of the most fascinating parts of this myth is the attempt to create a tool to mimic grief and reap power. The invention recalls, rather alarmingly, those of the current seismic technological shift throwing the humanness of emotion, power and skill into question."

— Marianna Simnett

The character of Gorgon mutates between different Al-processed projections of the artist performing as a range of species known for their deception - Myrmarachne formicaria, a spider that can disguise itself as an ant; the Caligo butterfly, whose spots resemble owl eyes; and the mimic octopus, who can impersonate a wide variety of marine animals - as well as Potnia Melissa, a winged mythological figure draped in bees, referred to as the "Ur-Gorgon." Voices also transform throughout the work, as Gorgon moves through different Al-inflected intonations, Greta tries on various modes of speech, and the dog sings in a woman's melodious voice. GORGON's score, played live by a masked chorus of flautists, similarly embraces moments of metamorphosis when their playing is converted into sounds of bee swarms, weapons and animal cries. Simnett's inventive use of Al throughout GORGON is thoughtfully anchored in each character arc. She draws on forms cited in current debates around Al such as style and voice conversion, and channels them towards new artistic possibilities.

Grounded in references spanning feminist and post-human theory, scientific research, pre-human technologies, and Gothic horror, GORGON is an expansive look at our relationship to non-human others. Its constellations point to the interconnectivity of technological acceleration and ecological crises, and the simultaneous force each exerts on our conscious, subconscious and physical ways of being in the world. Signaling the need for renewed forms of empathy, GORGON offers timely commentary on how we meet the uncanny, the unwieldy and the unknown.

With GORGON, I want to replace the axes of intelligence and stupidity with axes of empathy and proximity. I don’t care who is cleverer — us or the machine. It’s more exciting to think about mutual exchanges and intra-actions between fluid, constantly transforming entities.“

— Marianna Simnett

AI Image Generation

Appearing as projections on various parts of the stage, Gorgon’s morphing form has been created using a combination of image generation models, most notably latent diffusion models (LDMs). LDMs use two neural networks to combine inputs such as images with selected datasets or text prompts that draw in features from large online databases. They allow for a high level of customisation in their synthesis of data sources. For Gorgon’s character, the model has been trained on video footage of Simnett’s performances in custom-made costumes, which, in the case of mimicking animals, are intended to confuse the neural network that classifies data. By training an LDM on footage of Simnett, a visual bridge is built between her analogue performance and the realm of digital abstraction. In addition to the original footage, text prompts have brought animalistic and feral features into the LDM’s synthesis. This approach lends an ethereal quality to Gorgon's presence, enabling it to shift and evolve in response to the narrative's ebb and flow. [2]

AI Sound Generation and Conversion

GORGON incorporates two neural network systems for sonic generation and conversion: timbre transfer and voice models. Timbre transfer changes the sonic characteristics of one sound to match another. In the performance, live flute performances are fed into a RAVE (Realtime Audio Variational autoEncoder) model, which is a generative neural network. This system transforms the flute’s sound in real-time using models trained on hours of sounds, including whale songs, gunshots and bird chirps. The resulting sound is a human-AI duet in which the flautists’ playing interacts with AI-altered versions of the sounds they produce.

The transformation of Gorgon, Greta and the dog’s voices happens via processes of AI voice-style transfer, a type of vocal puppetry also known as voice cloning. For Gorgon, various trained voice models are blended to invent new and distinct voices for each of its guises. For Greta, a singing-voice conversion AI is used to modify her speech to sound like a range of renowned political figures, giving her presidential flair. Artist Holly Herndon’s Holly+ voice model is used to convert the dog’s voice into Herndon’s own singing voice. The model uses a deep neural network to produce a ‘digital twin’ of the artist’s voice to which sound files can be transposed. Created in response to the proliferation of deepfakes of celebrity voices, Herndon’s model speaks to timely questions of provenance and intellectual property surrounding the proliferation of AI style transfer. [3]

“Latent diffusion models are heavily biassed, they want to Barbie-fy my face. They’re trained on a consensus of what a generic girl is supposed to look like, taking a median from all images across the internet. I found that the machine strongly pronounces the very things I'm trying to run away from. The process was one of initial horror and rejection and then we came up with ways to subvert the model.“

— Marianna Simnett

Deep Dive


"What kind of ant can do this?"

In the opening scene this line is spoken by Gorgon who appears ambiguously as both an ant and a spider before decapitating itself – the first of its many stunts. Throughout the work, Simnett references the Gorgon myth, often by tapping into complex dynamics between its characters rather than remaining faithful to popular versions. This scene portrays both the power of Gorgon and Simnett’s initial twist on the myth.

Spurred by her feelings of envy and betrayal, Athena transforms Medusa into a powerful Gorgon whose decapitated head will later provide the deity protection. Athena similarly transforms other women into ants and spiders as a punishment or as an act of pity; given Gorgon shape-shifts between these two creatures, Simnett suggests it embodies an amalgamation of the power of those who have been cast out.

Many spider species mimic ants to avoid their predators, and devour their mates after sex. They share this trait with the female mantis, who, in the act of copulation, flicks off her mate’s head and consumes him. Simnett borrows from this phenomenon of the natural world to reference Medusa’s decapitation, but in her version it is a self-inflicted stunt. In removing the hand of Perseus, Simnett precludes male characters as drivers of action.

“Gorgon is a place in the body, namely the back of the throat. Gorgon is our ancestry, the depths of humanity, spanning epochs and centuries. Gorgon is raw, unfiltered, untame, terror, terra, earth, the roots, the ground and the subterranean. Gorgon is the sediment lying dormant for thousands of years, a ghost of what remains but never actually dies. Gorgon is a rebellion against extinction. Gorgon is a feeling related to a climate of pressure, that many of us carry yet maybe can't fully articulate. Gorgon is the return of the repressed. Gorgon is an unruly, charged, animalistic being who resides inside us, but who we are, as a society, forced to cover up. Gorgon is both self and other, part of us, but not us.“

— Marianna Simnett

Act I, Scene V

"Mimicry is a dangerous luxury"

According to sociologist Roger Caillois, mimesis can be viewed as losing oneself in the other. As he puts it: “Beware, whoever pretends to be a ghost will eventually turn into one.” [4]

Caillois argues that mimicry poses a threat by blurring the line between an individual and their surroundings. He notes cases in which some species imitate their environments so well that they come to eat each other, mistaking one another for actual leaves or twigs. Mimicry, he warns, is a “dangerous luxury”.

Simnett quotes Caillois’s warning in a melodic line sung by Hans in various moments throughout the work. Within the context of GORGON, the refrain speaks to a wider engagement with AI as a technology of mimicry — a simulation of intelligent behaviour, a mirror of the broader patterns of collective inputs, and a form aptly suited to copying and deception. She connects the significance of the death drive in Caillois’s formulation of mimicry with the rapid acceleration by which humans and AI are moving closer to one another.

"I am interested in the death drive, in that deeply psychological question of where we're all heading, and the collective fear of whether humanity as we know it is going to die out. Could it be possible that we have a self-annihilating desire to disappear, to become matter, to become particle, to become one with our environment? What would this look like and what would be the cost? It could mean having to radically let go of our ego, relinquish our obsession with human dominance, and instead collaborate and connect with other non-human systems. It's the dangerous luxury of accepting what we might become in the future. This might be the last era where we can call ourselves whole and human, and looking back we will think we were completely foolish for ever questioning our hybridity."

— Marianna Simnett

Act I, Scene V

“If you want to see him again / You must invent a little game / An instrument / A bone”

The invention of the bone flute (60,000 BCE) might have marked a significant moment for early humans, as they experienced the first sounds mimicking a bird's song. It is thought to be an important foundation of music as a form of communication and a forum for social bonds. Simnett’s inclusion of this ancient instrument opens up a deep-time approach to her exploration of the relationship between technology and mimicry. Her approach levels the innovation of early human technologies with recent machine learning models, proposing a continuum of tools shaped through mimetic goals. AI marks another significant moment in this continuum, precipitated in the 1950s by computer scientist Alan Turing’s imitation game (later referred to as the Turing Test), which acknowledges the possibility for indistinction between human and machine outputs.

’s look at the mimetic element of technology comes to the fore when a chorus of fireflies instructs Greta to invent her own kind of imitation game to help her find the Gorgon and reunite with Hans. Greta heeds this advice and crafts an instrument from an animal bone. When played, her proto-flute mimics the sound of Gorgon’s cries, and leaves a trail of dead animals in its wake. The flute becomes a cypher for a weapon, which harks back to an earlier scene when Greta is relentlessly 3D-printing flute-guns. Her creation of tools to help her reap power echoes Athena, who is known for her cunning ability for invention, and as the chaperone of war. In looking at mimicry’s role in technological innovation, Simnett here nods to the way that technology is often used to exert power over the environment.

Act I, Scene V

“Butterflies be owls”

GORGON’s theme of transformation is developed through numerous languages of ‘becoming’, and the senses of fluidity and potential they encompass. This is heard in lines such as in Hans’s commands “Insects be petals. Plants be stones. Rocks be brains. Stalactites be breasts,” from Gustave Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874), and his later riff: “Butterflies be owls / Spiders be ants / Parasites be proteins / Cephalopods be snakes.” Towards the work’s end, Gorgon, appearing as a mimic octopus, also takes on this language of transition as it defensively cycles through a range of marine predators: “Octopus / Becoming a sea snake / Becoming a shrimp / Becoming a flounder / Becoming a jellyfish / Becoming venomous / Dangerous / Becoming a crab / Becoming a seahorse / Becoming an eel / Becoming”.

Simnett’s emphasis on states of becoming crosses Gorgon’s mutations between different voices and species, such as the Caligo butterfly and the owl it can disguise itself as. If the project of power is to fix and classify in order to control, Gorgon’s ungraspability is its counter-power. Mimicry’s role as an agent of transformation can equally be seen in Greta’s constant rehearsing of her identity — for instance, in trying on the postures and voices of politicians and entrepreneurs — as well as in the changing masks of the chorus as they become fireflies, coral or bees. Much like Simnett’s inclusion of the bone flute, her handmade masks refer to an ancient technology of transformation that she pits against the speed and fluidity of AI-generated alterations.

Act II, Scene II

"That gargling goat / Wretched bitch / With no door on her throat"

The storied howl of the Gorgon sisters' lament over Medusa's death is just one of many examples of associations made between the female voice and monstrosity, disorder and death within Western literary tradition. In her essay 'The Gender of Sound,' [5] poet and classicist Anne Carson also cites the deadly lure of the Sirens' songs in Homer's epic poem 'Odyssey' (8th or 7th century BCE), the high-pitched, torturous voices of the Furies in Aeschylus' tragedy 'Eumenides' (5th century BCE), and the description of the nymph Echo as "the girl with no door on her mouth" in Sophokles' play 'Philoctetes' (5th century BCE). Carson insists that "[p]utting a door on the female mouth has been an important project of patriarchal culture from antiquity to the present day." [6]

Across her artistic practice, Simnett has taken up critical questions of gender, voice, disorder and Othering. Her film The Needle and the Larynx (2016) and installation Worst Gift (2017) address the gendering of vocal pitch, and point towards the social norms and desires that drive voice alteration. With GORGON, Simnett draws more directly on Carson's historiography of the demonisation of the female voice. When news breaks of the dreadful wail tormenting Germany, it is reported that it may be linked to the prior murder of a young woman in the Brieselang Forest in Brandenburg. Gorgon then tells us: "I was once woman I Now I am bigger, widespread/ A virus." In speaking the line "That gargling goat I Wretched bitch / With no door on her throat," Greta reveals her own envy of the power within Gorgon's wail by ridiculing it. This internalised misogyny mirrors Athena's antagonisation of Medusa.

Act II, Scene III

“Where is my body?”

This refrain is sung by the character of the dog in the voice of artist Holly Herndon. It speaks to the tension between embodiment and disembodiment in the digital age. In the work's first act we meet Gorgon, who morphs, multiplies and disappears in ways that challenge the physicality of the performers onstage. We also hear Greta make requests of Holly, an invisible assistant who turns lights on. In the second act, Simnett challenges understandings of either character as immaterial: the seemingly virtual character of Gorgon is not impervious to physical attack, while Holly, trapped within the character of the dog, tells of her transformation from being a girl to a voice that manifests the desires of her user. Simnett's characterisation of Holly speaks to a history of women's disembodied voices being used as virtual assistants in interfaces such as navigation systems, mobile phones and smart homes.

In Greta, Simnett draws on the forms of body horror prominent in Gothic fiction to explore the distress of trying to keep up with technology's acceleration. When her arsenal of 3D-printed flute-guns proves incompatible with new rivals, Greta undergoes a slow process of retooling that begins with the dissolution of her discrete individuality. Her body comes to symbolise the tensions of moving from the technologies, relationships and forms of consciousness marking one age into its successor.

Act II, Scene VII

"The sky has not yet fallen"

Greta's final utterance is spoken as she is becoming enmeshed with Gorgon in the form of Potnia Melissa, the "Ur-Gorgon," and her chorus of bees. Gorgon repeats the refrain "the sky has not fallen" before Greta and Gorgon, in unison, arrive at the iteration "the sky has not yet fallen." Their words recall theorist Donna Haraway's description of the age she terms the Chthulucene: "the Chthulucene is made up of ongoing multispecies stories and practices of becoming-with in times that remain at stake, in precarious times, in which the world is not finished and the sky has not fallen - yet. We are at stake to each other." [7]

The arc of Greta's transformation in GORGON traces the shift demanded by the Chthulucene: human exceptionalism and the exploitation it licences must give way to a narrative framework rooted in the significance and interconnectivity of all entities within Earth's fabric. This is intrinsically linked to the performance's broader trajectory, which, in Simnett's words, aims to "replace axes of intelligence and stupidity with axes of empathy and proximity." This is epitomised in Greta's final monologue, which speaks of the gaps: the distances that produce space for desire, control and othering. As Greta's body and ego slowly transition into a new entity, there is a sense of ceding this distance, a sense of proximity, a sense of betweenness of all living and non-living beings. In speaking the line "the sky has not yet fallen," Greta and Gorgon names the stake we all commonly share.







GORGON is influenced by the work and thinking of the following people:

Laurie Anderson, Kenneth Anger, Johann Sebastian Bach, Karen Barad, Bela Bart6k, Samuel Beckett, Rachel Beetz, Gottfried Benn, Bjork, Maurice Blanchot, James Bridle, Dennis Cahill, Roger Caillois, Anne Carson, Angela Carter, Nick Cave, Oliver Coates, Digga D, Walt Disney, Mat Dryhurst, Lucy Ellmann, Philip Glass, Bostjan Gombac, Jack Halberstam,Donna Haraway, Saidiya Hartman, Martin Hayes, Holly Herndon, Mike Kelley, Fritz Lang, Nicole Mitchell, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Conlon Nancarrow, Ovid, Henry Purcell, Rebecca Saunders, Mary Shelley, J. Stark, Jeffrey Stuker, Lars von Trier, Jan Tumlir, Jennifer Walshe, Marina Warner, Kamasi Washington, Robert Wilson and lannis Xenakis.

'Throughout the score, there are remnants and memories of the many different sounds and bodies that have come before me. I have deliberately included a cauldron of contemporary and historical references that I feel belong to the project. It would be mad not to reference Mozart's The Magic Flute' in an opera about the flute. I have dropped tiny clues throughout the score, twisting what is already deeply seated in our cultural consciousness. I took a passage from Henry Purcell's 'Dido's Lament,' for example, but instead of playing it forwards, I transcribed it backwards and reconfigured it to have the liveliness and cheer of an Irish jig. You know the melody, the notation is similar to something you've heard, but at the same time it's not. It's a mimicry with a twist. Something happens to the brain, you know you've already been here, you have a feeling of familiarity and deja vu, but you're unaware of why you know it.'

— Marianna Simnett


Marianna Simnett

Marianna Simnett is an artist and musician living and working in Berlin. Her work has been exhibited internationally in solo exhibitions at venues including Société, Berlin (2022); Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane (2019); Kunsthalle Zürich, Zürich (2019); MMK, Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt (2018); The New Museum, New York (2018) and Zabludowicz Collection, London (2018). Selected group exhibitions include Chrysalis: The Butterfly Dream, Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève (2023); the 59th Venice Biennale: The Milk of Dreams (2022); Espressioni: The Epilogue, Castello di Rivoli, Turin (2022); and Prize of the Böttcherstraße, Kunsthalle Bremen (2022).


Marianna Simnett: GORGON
Commissioned by LAS Art Foundation,
Presented at HAU Hebbel am Ufer (HAU2), Berlin
13-17 September 2023

Director, Composer and Librettist: Marianna Simnett
Producer: Orlando Maaike Gouwenberg

Curated by Carly Whitefield with Sophie Korschildgen
Produced for LAS by Flinder Zuyderhoff-Gray and Eva Mikelatou


Jess Aszodi
Marianna Simnett
Maria Portela Larisch
Roy Amotz, Julie Huguet, Malin Sieberns, Kristóf Siklósi


Director of Photography
Leander Ott
Set Designer
Emilia Margulies
Al Artist and Technologist
Moisés Horta Valenzuela
Music Development and Arranger
Jeremy Woodruff
Margret Bjarnadóttir
Costume Designer
Charlotte Buchal
Gorgon Costume Designer and Fabricator
Yao Liao
Victoria Plekhanova
Sara Matthiasson
Eva Vollmar
Technical Producer
Wibke Tiarks
Lighting Designer
Sebastian Zamponi
Projection Designer
Timur Novikov
Mahdiyeh Agahi
Al Dataset Assistant
Ian Berman
Visual Al Assistance
Alan lxba
Editor and Visual Effects
Marianna Simnett
Music Mastering
Enyang Ha
Sound Technician
Mattef Kuhlmey
Director's Assistant
Emilia Schupp, Kamila Walendykiewicz, Sophia Ziesch
Video Shoot Assistants
Jasmin Halama, Andrea Palacios, Kohei Takahashi
Associate Set Designer
Robin PIöger
Set Design Assistants
Wiebke von Bremen, Josephine Conen
Set Design Interns
Kristin Jakubek, Lucie Skifski
Prop Builder
Baptiste Pays
3D Designer
Hannah Rose Stewart
3D Design Assistant
Dennis Wintermeyer
Costume Consultant
Mona May
Costume Fabrication
Elodie Carstensen
Costume Ager
Julia Schell
Mask Designer
Marianna Simnett
Hair Assistant
Hawa Baldeh
Stage Hands
Leander Kreissl, Rebecca Lyons, Tarek Sayoud
Libretto Development:
Andrew Wagner
Marianna Simnett Studio
Isobel O'Gorman, Ksenia Jakobson, Emilia Schupp, Andrew Wagner

HAU, Hebbel am Ufer Team

Technical Production Management
Sven Nichterlein
Head of Production
Hannes Frey
Costume Assistant
Esther Neumann
Light Technicians
Klaus Dust, Lea Schneidermann, Max Wegner
Sound Technicians
Matthias Kirschke, Janis Klinkhammer, Rozenn Lièvre, Frieder Naumann
Video Technicians
Julia Cremers, Bodo Gottschalk
Stage Technicians
Sujin Choi, Jan Hoffmann, Kristof Meers, Dominik Stillfried
Janosch Block

Verde Berlin

LAS and extended Team

Founder and Co-Director
Jan Fischer
Dr Bettina Karnes
Commercial Director
Kristina Leipold
Controlling and Operations Manager
Jasna Kohnert Stavenhagen
Project Manager
Flinder Zuyderhoff-Gray
Project Manager
Alexis Convento
Harriet Collins
Creative Producer
Eva Mikelatou
Senior Curator
Carly Whitefield
Curator at Large
Julia Kaganskiy
Assistant Curator
Sophie Korschildgen
Curatorial Assistant
Zoe Büchtemann
Curatorial Assistant
Nicole Wittmann
Curatorial Advisor
Tilman Kanitz
Head of Marketing and Communications
Felix Thon
Communications Manager
Selin Şahin
Communications Manager
Evelyn Nossol
Communications Manager
Marietta Auras
Communications Assistant
Moritz Weber
Press Relations
Ann-Charlotte Günzel
Social Media Manager
Veronica Jonsson
Content Creator
Carole Hassoun
Concept and Strategy Manager
Alice Lamperti
Office and Operations Manager
Alina Fichtner
Event Manager
Louise Nielsen

The artist thanks:

K Allado-McDowell, Oliver Busch, Mat Dryhurst, Ben Eastham, Jake Elwes, Amira Gad, Holly Herndon, LAS Art Foundation, Kyle McDonald, Egill Sæbjörnsson, John Simnett, Société, ThierryTidrow, lgorToronyi-Lalic

Written and edited by:
Tilman Kanitz, Sophie Korschildgen, Carly Whitefield

Copy edited by Janine Armin