A couple of weekends ago I went back down to London for a day to check out some shows I’d been eager to see for a while, particularly ‘AI: More than Human’ at the Barbican.
As an examination of how AI is increasingly permeating our lives, at a glance and if at least through the cacophonous curation of show, I think it worked reasonably well as an introduction to the development of technologies driven by an insatiable human pursuit of pattern, measurement and ‘progress’. However, by the time I had squeezed my body a third of the way through the show it was hard not to feel completely overwhelmed by the unbelievable volume of work and display in a narrow tunnel-like space in The Curve, on top of the sheer volume of people jostling to be able to focus for more than ten seconds on one piece. Truthfully, maybe worst of all, I simply didn’t even find much in the exhibition very interesting (which to be honest is a feeling I very rarely encounter or feel weighed down by). I spent the visit wading through and elbowing people ‘playing’ with pieces that barely seemed to offer space for meaning or a question beyond a gimmick. Another factor which did affect my navigation of the show was having felt personally quite low for a few weeks due to several work-related issues - not in and of itself relevant or of interest, but in terms of the context of the show and some of the words that came to mind - power/powerlessness, control, prediction, removal - my interaction with the work suffered from a lack of focus in curation and design which might have provided more space for a critical human reading… most of the people around me seemed to be at the very least excited by the interactive quality of each zone but I question how much collectively was taken away in terms of a reflection of the place of creativity in an AI driven social landscape. Scattered throughout were subjects which I intend to explore further and would have liked to have been able to hone in on, for example neural networks and bioengineering (Organ-Chips in the form of tiny devices lined with responsive living human cells and tissue designed by Emulate Inc. - which sounds like the name of a corporation straight out of a sci-fi movie - to ‘better predict’ human responses to drugs, I read as being at once hopeful and disquieting). I don’t typically find Jonathan Jones’ writing to be constructive and balanced, but I understand the central questions he asks of the show in reflecting on my experience; ‘The question I’m left with is why so much is being invested in talking up the creativity of AI.’ My frustration I think gravitated not towards a feeling that creativity was not to be found in AI technologies - at least not the undercurrent - but the talking-up and hype did not allow for a critical analysis of how an AI can become creative. This perhaps was not a central concern of the premise but the premise itself to me also seemed slightly muddled.
An element that did interest me was some of the focus on written language - one piece in particular tucked away amongst the noise presented extracts of text and asked the viewer whether it was written by a human or an AI, and revealed the answers (one extract for example, pictured above, was a film script generated by ‘Benjamin’, written by a neural network trained on dozens of sci-fi screenplays), which were interesting I think in terms of the way we process poetry or word association… botpoet.com offers a similar ‘test’, and an article from New Scientist (‘Neural network poetry is so bad we think it’s written by humans’) perhaps rightly argues that while an AI could be programmed to write about Brexit in the style of a Greek epic, the emotive drivers of creative intent are missing. This is perhaps not entirely unrelated to Austin Kleon’s reflections on his own ‘newspaper blackout’ work which we discussed in our group Skype chat (18 June) - questioning intent in relation to the ways in which we develop ideas, and maybe some of our hang-ups about originality. I find these convolutions in itself compelling rather than ineffective or purely pointless; the origin of the algorithm itself contains human intent, which has to emit an undercurrent of meaning, especially if we stop to reconsider that AI again is ‘artificial’ - designed, and is not an infallible non-human species. Anxieties abound. The podcast ‘The End of the World’ with Josh Clark effectively explores such considerations of the limits to which AI might influence and shape the future of civilisation outside of our control and the degree to which AI could be, or already represents, an existential threat, and is presented in a way which introduces subjects and issues in an accessible, scaffolded manner. Language, and the use of multiple forms of language is something Jonathan and I discussed in my last tutorial which will be detailed in a post to follow, and building on a suggestion I received in the Mid-Point Review, an exploration of written work and the incorporation of text in visual sequences is something I am focusing on now in making. Memory, as the container of meaning, perhaps still lies buried at the roots of the mechanised plant, and in this I will be researching more on neural networks and deep learning, and the ‘mining’ of natural neurological systems, in order to inform the potency of my project. This will also feed into my research paper which will examine the work of Jon Rafman - again, more to follow.
Unsound:Undead by AUDINT at arebyte Gallery was not immune to the swamp of future-collapse anxiety either; toxic-green projections and percolating sound (crickets chirping, robotic corporate-style narration of animations describing how the brain processes auditory signals, meandering interviews with White House employees) bounce the viewers’ attention around a media frenzy, over the unravelling of a situation involving alleged sonic attacks on US embassies in Cuba and South China, and speculation on the source of the recorded signal leading to reports of ‘mild-traumatic brain injury’ among US diplomats.
‘The air is crammed and not a moment goes by that doesn’t presage the demise of an eleven billion strong species. Volatile weather systems, environmental warfare, and insect-machine hybrids that infect humans via targeted DNA sequencing, all meld this ecology of collapse. The hierarchy of Earth’s species is about to enter an irreversible flux.’ - Ghostcode, AUDINT
One of the main things I’ve taken away from the two shows I’ve seen at arebyte is that the curation in itself I’ve found very sensitive and effective in enabling the work to engage and not collectively overwhelm. Visiting RE-FIGURE-GROUND was an important moment for me in February, encouraging me to explore intricacies of new technologies and methods of presentation - I appreciate the currentness of the gallery’s programming and Unsound:Undead continued to make me reflect back on my intentions in those terms. How and in what ways do I intend for my project to be immersive? While Unsound:Undead was visually compelling and curated in a way which conveyed a sense of urgency and the battle for persuasion taking place beneath the hum of the swarming media broadcasts and in the rapid-fire twitterbot monitor, I did also consider the penetrability of the work and how, despite being installed in a cohesive way, possibly lacked cohesion in message and effectively suggesting relationships between the video work and the physical cabinet-style assemblage containing 3D printed symbols that seemed to be associated with weaponised sound. The ambiguity and offset focus of the work, the dim but frenetic buzz of the panicked communications, substantially reflected what I read as being an examination of an imminent thread-bare social order, but across the show sound seemed to come secondary to the visual narrative somehow, which I was not expecting. This serves as a reminder for me to continually consider clarity and the specific properties of how my work communicates so that the project engages and reaches as many viewers as possible in offering a space for meaning and reflection.
In contrast to the Barbican show, the Dark Matter show at Science Gallery London presented a collection of fragile and captivating work which effectively communicated complex principles, questions and introductions to contexts in contemporary physics, in a manner which did not seek to provide an exhaustive history or review. A piece from artist duo semiconductor seemed central to the investigation - their intentions of ‘putting the human back into the data’, working often in residency with research facilities such as CERN, the Smithsonian and the British Geological Survey, serves to draw our attention to the ways in which we rely upon the scientific lens in our understanding of the natural world and forces that shape our environment. The piece ‘Through the AEgIS’ (2017), in which isolated particles nervously scratch and burn across a photographic plate, has a magnetic visual simplicity, and the sensitivity of the formats chosen to examine and translate information into visual sequences throughout their work, which often include obsolete domestic technologies that might have promised the future of recording or display, stitches together narratives of change; growth and recession, activity and disappearance, knowing and unknowing.
There is a great flexibility and versatility in their approach which I admire, and specifically influential on my thought process over the past year has been the use of multiple languages, as previously described, sequenced together to form stories or constructs that question time and our perceptions of environment. I will be exploring their practice and methodology more extensively this week, in order to consolidate and evaluate the relevance and impact on my thought and practice as I move forward.