The Next Big Thing in Our New Normal: Art and A.I.

Stelarc, Reclining Stickman, 2020, installation view at Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres. Photography by Saul Steed. Image courtesy of The Art Gallery of South Australia.
Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, Dear, 2015, air pump, air tank, hose, and sofa. Image courtesy of Biennale di Venezia.
Hito Steyrl, The City of Broken Windows, 2018, film still. Image courtesy of Castello di Rivoli, Turin.
Sahej Rahal, Antraal, 2019, still, sentient A.I. program. Image courtesy of the artist and Chatterjee & Lal, Mumbai.
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Zhang Jian-Jun Human Traces

While artworks exploring and involving A.I. have been increasingly featured in exhibitions over the past few years, the current global crisis could just very well be a tipping point for its mainstay relevance in the contemporary art world.

TEXT: Reena Devi
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

 

Right now, we are living through a multi-faceted disruption of society on a scale we have never really experienced since World War II. The art scene is no exception. The question worth asking is what will art look like in this as yet unfathomable new phase we are moving towards rapidly. One of the possibilities could very likely be an increasing influx of art that involves and explores Artificial Intelligence (A.I.)

We have reached a point in mainstream discourse where readers do not even require an explainer on A.I.. We have also moved past the point of contemplating whether art involving A.I. technology, such as They Took the Faces from the Accused and the Dead…(SD18)(2019) by Trevor Paglen, should be considered art. Although the debate on whether art generated by A.I. is really art is still ongoing and merits an entire piece of its own. For now, we will focus on artworks that use and explore A.I. technology, which can increasingly be found in major international art exhibitions throughout the world.

At this year’s Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art titled “Monster Theatres,” renowned performance artist Stelarc presented Reclining Stickman (2020), a massive nine meter long robotic exoskeleton. Comprising pneumatic rubber muscles, exhibition visitors could animate the robot from a control panel. There is also an algorithm in place to move the robotic minimalist tentacles intermittently if no one is controlling it. The work resembles a monster from our nightmares but it is also very much a monster of our making, essentially capturing the nature of A.I. as well as our reality now and the future that lies ahead.

 

Stelarc, Reclining Stickman, 2020, installation view at Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres. Photography by Saul Steed. Image courtesy of The Art Gallery of South Australia.

 

At last year’s Venice Biennale themed “May You Live in Interesting Times,” Beijing conceptual artists and husband-and-wife duo Sun Yuan and Peng Yu presented two highly evocative works. Resembling the chair US President Abraham Lincoln sits on in the famous Washington, D.C. monument, Dear (2015) showcased a white silicon chair inside a plexiglass container with an affixed rubber hose that looked and moved like a whip. The second work Can’t Help Myself (2016) involved a robotic arm continuously pushing blood-red liquid inside a specific pre-determined area within a glass arena of sorts.

The artists programmed the robot to carry out 32 different movements such as “scratch an itch” or “ass shake” to imbue the machine with uncanny human-like motions. According to a designboom review, the uncontrollable liquid represents art’s “essential elusiveness, its defiant refusal to being pinned down and fixed in place.” Never before in our contemporary age has such defiance and fluidity been more necessary. To see these qualities explored and epitomised in art and A.I., feels like a door that we can open and walk through, for better or for worse, unlike the homes most of us are isolated in right now.

 

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, Dear, 2015, air pump, air tank, hose, and sofa. Image courtesy of Biennale di Venezia.

 

In 2018, internationally acclaimed Berlin-based artist and theorist Hito Steyerl, who is known for her prescient work exploring A.I., premiered The City of Broken Windows (2018) at Castello di Rivoli, a museum of contemporary art in Italy. The seminal artwork involved neural sound recordings documenting the process of teaching A.I. how to identify the sound of breaking windows, a practice that represented social disruption. According to the museum, Based on her research on A.I. companies and surveillance technologies, the sound installation provided a possible window on how “digital contemporary imagination influences our emotions and experience of reality.”

The artist, who is on ArtReview’s Power 100 list, is also famously known for talking about “artificial stupidity” as a major existential threat. She argued against the mainstream belief in an A.I. apocalypse while pointing out that artificial stupidity, which involves bot armies producing fake news or influencing elections, is the real issue, given the way these efforts can engage and influence the mindsets of large numbers of people online. She is uncannily accurate—even in times of a global crisis, this capacity to misinform masses has turned out to be a major threat.

Most recently, Steyerl presented “Power Plants,” an exhibition at London’s Serpentine Gallery in 2019. The show explored the limits of A.I. in creating and foreseeing sound and image through video sculptures and sigil codes. In doing so, the exhibition also highlighted the often ignored social and economic inequalities in the local area around the gallery. According to the artist, “If you look into the future using A.I., you will see very quickly it is extremely blurry.”

 

Hito Steyrl, The City of Broken Windows, 2018, film still. Image courtesy of Castello di Rivoli, Turin.

 

Closer to home, Indian artist Sahej Rahal, recently featured in the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art’s exhibition “Feedback Loops,” is known for creating supposedly sentient online beings made of discarded materials from the streets and based on mythical deities. Rahal’s performance based artworks include sculptures of a futuristic nature as well as an A.I. program aptly titled Antraal (2019), a Sanskrit word for interstice or the space between. His work realises visions of entities and landscapes that seem far-fetched and alien but are ultimately influenced by external stimuli such as the volume, pitch and speed of our own voices.

Rahal’s artwork, like most of the art discussed in this article, brings us back to the notion that whatever forces we deal with in these constantly shifting realities of our time are essentially of our own making. A.I. is definitely one such phenomenon. Typically, accelerated technological advances tend to follow a major crisis, and the current global pandemic could be a similar tipping point for A.I. As such, art and A.I. make uncanny yet inevitable bedfellows in exploring our intensely disruptive 21st century society.

 

Sahej Rahal, Antraal, 2019, still, sentient A.I. program. Image courtesy of the artist and Chatterjee & Lal, Mumbai.

 

 
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