When digital artists take up the challenge of new stakes in artificial intelligence

Whereas the Web giants prepare their industrial and commercial strategies around new stakes of AI (Artificial Intelligence), how do digital artists seize this new technological implementation and how do they devise a simultaneously creative and premonitory outlook of the concerns that stress out this two-faced new IT technology advances?

If the virtual reality tools (Oculus Rift, HTC Vive or Sony PlayStation VR headsets) are still today on top in terms of hi-tech communication and financial investments within the new devices of digital entertainment (1.48 billion dollars invested in 2016 in VR sector against 331 million dollars in 2015, according to Pitchbook), and this in spite of disappointing sales figures1, the big multinational companies of new media platforms, of internet and other social networks (the main tech giants are of course Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft) seem already turned towards another target – and its economical, strategic and technological main stakes -, the one of AI, for Artificial Intelligence or Advanced Informatics.

This is anyway what some specialists of this virtual assistant technology imply, when talking of this functional entity that will serve us soon as a double, a ghost, attentive and rational, coming to substitute to all our non-perfect and disorganized human quirks by nature, in a generalised and home automation controlled digital environment system. 
Last October, during “Artificial Intelligence, where are we now?” conference held at Grenoble’s Maison Minatec during sixth edition of Experimenta show organized by Atelier Arts Sciences, CEA and Hexagone Scène Nationale, the researcher Vincent Le Cerf, counsellor in digital future, demonstrated the current strong reflection of Web giants about brand new developments in this field. According to him, Watson, the AI made by IBM should do 50% of the company’s revenues in 2018.


Artificial Intelligence: the necessity of a shared creative impetus is a must

In this economic perspective that seems to happen, how appears the artistic positioning that has always closely followed (sometimes even preceded) the big technological advances by shaping the aesthetic subtleties and thinking proceeding from computing art, web art and, widely speaking, from digital arts?

Let’s making it clear first for the most curious ones, the current artistic propositions directly coming from the AI – notably the much talked about automated visual tool of Deep Dream (a program created by Google) – is perplexing. But the techniques in continual improvement allowed by the teaching of deep learning assiduously granted to these new non-organic intelligences open wide many perspectives.

For several AI specialists, the necessity of a creative impetus that would associate the artists to the general thinking in this domain is a must. This is what has recommended, still in Experimenta conferences cycle, the CNRS/INSHS researcher Véronique Aubergé who makes the wish of an “algorithmic revolution”. A premise, shared by other actors of this area (cognitive psychologist and CEA scientific counsellor Théophile Ohlmann, French Ministry of culture’s digital politics coordinator Eli Commins or Atelier BNP Paribas vice director Philippe Torrès), to express in the first place some hesitations on the way the big corporations appropriate themselves a new power de facto over the citizen/consumer, throughout these new code lines that could have great influence, thanks to your new personalized virtual avatar, on your daily life. What are ethical choices of these algorithms? What global legislative framework to find for them in this new and always reminded ratio of power between omnipotent companies and traditional nation states? Should we let the Silicon Valley firms to decide of our future? There are many questions and collective mobilization all of this means gives a great deal of room for artistic interventionism. 

Alien Matter: Artificial Intelligence invites itself in artistic thinking

As a matter of fact, some artists have already got to grips with the topic, as the Vancouver-located Ben Bogart and its recent piece Watching (Blade Runner), out from the series in progress Watching and Dreaming. With a generative approach, the Canadian deals on it with the machine learning and computer vision algorithms by taking apart and reconstructing popular cinematic depictions of artificial intelligence through the Ridley Scott’s movie, one of the most famous directing of an AI in film culture.


Watching (Blade Runner) (2016) Excerpt from Ben Bogart

The 2017 edition of Berlin festival Transmediale  underlines the growing interest of digital artists for this unprecedented (but under control?) awareness of the machine through its Ever Alusive theme and mostly with the exhibition Alien Matter at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, commissioned by Inke Arns, a renowned specialist of human/technological practices and artistic director of HMKV in Dortmund. “’Alien Matter’ refers to man-made, and at the same time, radically different, potentially intelligent matter”, Inke Arns says. “It is the outcome of a naturalization of technological artifacts. Environments shaped by technology result in new relationships between man and machine. Technical objects, previously defined merely as objects of utility, have become autonomous agents. Their capacity to learn and network throws into question the previously clear and dominant division between active subject and passive object. The exhibiting artists here present works about shifts within such power structures, raising questions about the state of our current environment and whether it has already passed the tipping point, becoming ‘alien matter’”. An observation acting as the announcement of “the nascent great machine” and that refers in some way to the “obsolescence of humankind” concept of German writer Günther Anders.

It is right to say that some projects presented in Berlin put into perspective several extrapolations around this idea of new omniscient machine, trained according to learning rules of artificial intelligence. In his work DullDream, Dutch artist Constant Dullaart deals with Convolutional Neural Networks (CNN) - artificial neural networks that enable machine learning and pattern recognition and are used for facial and speech recognition – to take the opposing view of the usual highlighted and intensified patterns of Google’s Deep Dream, often close to hallucination. By reducing the specific characteristics of forms, he turns it into a proper dull dream.
In his video installation Recursion, Rhineland-based Sascha Pohflepp replaces the human in the heart of literature considerations of an AI who was asked to conceive a text combining several sources (going from Wikipedia to The Beatles’ songs) around humanity notion. Performed by an actress in close-up head shot, the text looks like playing with a curious feedback between its automated process and the human body in the flesh that gives it life.

Of course, classical futuristic dystopian and robotic interpretations are required. They can be seen through the Pinar Yoldas’ Artificial Intelligence for Governance, the Kitty AI, in which the Turkish artist puts on a 3D animation of an AI with feline facial features leading a megalopolis in 2039 and evoking the way humankind failed to sort out past crisis (such as the refugee crisis and climate change) and then came to its degradation.

intelligence artificielle


They reflect the vision of an Artificial Intelligence able to take in charge of human being from the cradle to the grave in the weird cybernetic sculpture of Katja Novitskova’s Swoon Motion, showing a mechanical swing reproducing a mother’s heartbeat and even singing children’s songs.
This loss of independence and power of humans is played with even more mischief by Nicolas Maigret and Maria Roszkowska’s Predictive Art Bot . By means of conceptualized algorithms inspired by financial predictions programs using data analysis, the created bot prophesizes absurd future trajectories for art. Forecasts that anyone can follow on twitter (twitter.com/predartbot) and that feed a parody of transhumanist flights of fancy by “liberating artists from the constraints of creativity and developing ideas not yet implemented or conceived of by humans”. In the same way, Suzanne Treister’s HFT The Gardener also calls on to stock exchange algorithms operated by trading bots, but by playing with psychedelic readings that could be given by a fictional high-frequency trader. Using a variety of botanical shapes, kaleidoscopic drawings, glitch urban futuristic outlooks, the work series of graphics, photos and videos of the British artist make materialize a shamanic and psychoactive visual field sometimes disturbing.

The psychological nature of these new links between man and machine looks clear. Especially as it relates to the key object of today, our beloved smartphone, to which artist/performer Johannes Paul Raether gives the central role in his installation Protekto.x.x., based itself on a performance made last year in an Apple store in Berlin by one of his characters-avatars, Protektoramae, whose mission is nothing less than investigating on the obsessional connection that people have for their mobile phone! An evidence that humour is still on the top of this complex array of links, as stresses out the Mark Leckey’s GreenScreenRefrigeratorAction, where a massive fridge makes a monologue speech that refers at the same time to the narcissistic condescension of humans – and so on, to their presumed influence on the machine – and to the functional downward spiral of machines becoming too much powerful, and then a bit decadent. A sad end for the internet of things indeed…

#SOFTLOVE: tricky love between the man and the machine

This view, almost dramatized, of a mimetic connection between the human and the machine has not to be masked, neither underestimated. 
It already was in the centre of the L’Esprit Humain device by French Jean-Pierre Balpe, a big specialist of relationships between literature and informatics, a piece realised in coproduction with Digitalarti that has been presented in 2015 in Animal/animal exhibition in Abbaye royale of Saint-Riquier, nearby Amiens. In a penetrable dark cube, a generated synthesis voice was “thinking” out loud on the strange and stranger nature from the spectator – the so-called human spirit - that came to visit him, showing a real philosophical autonomy by comparison with the one that used to be once its creator.

It is still today at the heart of one of the most interesting work in progress around this link between human and Artificial Intelligence, as it happens the one lead by French stage director Frédéric Deslias (assisted by Hugo Arcier for the audiovisual set-up and Ben Kuper for informatics design) and its company Le Clair Obscur in his play #SoftLove, based on the eponymous Éric Sadin’s book. 

#SoftLove introduction

The book relates 24 hours of a woman’s life through the wise and in love eye of her digital assistant. A fictional way for Éric Sadin to pursue his thought about our unsettling contemporary technological environment and its dangers (also enhanced in his reference volume La Silicolonisation du monde). The play of Frédéric Deslias adds to the book’s spirit all the appropriateness of a scenography stylizing an automated/ virtually connected house environment playing at the same time a role of confinement and a protecting cocoon, and in where the Artificial Intelligence would interfere in the main character’s everyday life as a true guardian angel particularly intrusive, until the point a romantic relationship starts – a scenario that reminds the one of Spike Jonze’s movie Her as well.

As a watermark of this disconcerting screenplay, a question has to be asked: behind the economic concerns brought by AI developments, could emotion reach new dimensions and drive us towards another society link between man and machine as authors Joi Ito, MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Media Lab director, and Jeff Howe, journalist at Wired, mention it in their very recently published book Whiplash: How To Survive Our Faster Future, that advocates the necessary adaptation of humans to technological progress to come and outlines a future lying on a kind of intricacy between man and machine? If Frédéric Deslias agrees with the society change, he is far from granting it any value of sublimation. “Let’s say that we have been living at the heart of a historical revolution, what is not a political-marketing jargon but really a societal and civilization issue”, analyzes the stage director. “Era of digitalization logically comes after the era of mechanization of tasks: in the same way we had exponentially increased our motive forces, and automated lot of tasks dedicated to the body (with cars, industrial, machines, etc.), what is going on with algorithms operates an analogue movement by massively delegating the tasks of our brains, at all levels and with the same exponential curve. But what is new with Artificial Intelligences is that for the first time we make theses algorithms aware of their responsibilities. What also means that we allow them to take decisions that, at the same time, make humans less aware of their responsibilities. This is a hindrance to free will.” For all that, would we live under the imminent menace of the code dictatorship, or wouldn’t it rather under the threat of the one that writes it? “I am sorry to smash the myth but an algorithm is just a code, or a series of codes, more or less complex. We have to put in back in the right order. Even if the power of calculation of a mega computer is huge, it is still executing a line of requests dictated in advance, requests thought and turned into codes by team of engineers and developers.” And behind these hidden worker bees, this is once again the previously named tech giants of Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft, that Frédéric Deslias points out. “Each of these companies largely exceeds a state budget and has the run over the world thanks to the network of social networks. A few companies, a few people, generally coming from the same very protected sociocultural microcosm of the Silicon Valley, preside over our online behaviours by codes that compartmentalizes our ways of doing, by programming softwares functioning with stringent rules. They centralize our activities on the boulevards of internet - these modern agoras - and raise billion of funds, of data, of dollars…Our lower behaviours, we know it, are captured out there, traced, trailed, massively filed and resold on a too much obscure market. How do these firms arrive to win that much money by reselling data? What is the deep use of this collecting of data? This is what Sadin calls “the life data commerce”. To ponder today the questions of surveillance, of freedom to act and to think collectively send shivers down your spine.”

However, these questions are more than ever the ones the artist must ask oneself. Safeguard, whistleblower or simple voice of a future to come, his work invites us to keep a vigilant and critical eye on what could be the next step of all these industrial digital modelling: the one of our consciousness?

Laurent Catala

1: According to SuperData Research, Oculus would have sold 360,000 Rift, HTC 450,000 Vive and Sony 750,000 PSVR since the commercialization of theses devices in 2016, figures lower to past projections, with notably, from what Doug Renert of Tandem Capital said, sales rather disappointing during year’s end celebrations.