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Artificial Imagination – Opening ‘the Black Box’ of Inscrutable AI Through Dialogue

Quietly, one of the most forward-thinking art organizations in Canada, Ottawa’s Artengine offers an amorphous mix of event programming and special projects that forge links across disciplines and disparate topics. In recent years they’ve tackled smart cities, interactive public art, and the growing presence of digital fabrication in the arts (see CAN’s recap of their excellent Unhanded event in 2016) – amongst other topics – and their events are some of the best we’ve attended in North America. So, it was with great anticipation we headed to Artificial Imagination, their symposium on the role of artificial intelligence in the arts this past winter. Given that most chatter about AI is as lucid as a fever dream at the moment, we were confident that Artengine would facilitate sober and prescient conversations on the topic – and true to form, they delivered. They recently published video documentation of their event, and, in an effort to share these noteworthy conversations with a wider audience, we share the videos and quick recap below.

Artificial Imagination took place on February 18th, in the form of three conversations. The sessions, explored the overlap between cosmology and computation, considered the mind-body problem, and mused about (rudimentary) machine consciousness. Bringing together a range of thinkers and facilitators, the idea was to invite a ‘who’s who’ of (primarily) Canadian artists and curators that have been exploring these ideas in their practices (some for decades) and to use artistic methods and expertise to evaluate the current status of AI. This wasn’t so much about heralding sea changes, but checking-in to interrogate first principles.

↑ Ghost in the Machine? A sampling of the strange things Artificial Imagination’s participants have tasked computers with: watching 2001: A Space Odyssey (Ben Bogart), exploring Lakota epistemology (Suzanne Kite, top left), collaborating to co-create choreography (Kristin Carlson, top right), poetically rendering ‘network chatter’ (David Rokeby, lower left), and creating an ecosystem of autonomous water vehicles (Sofian Audrey, lower right).

The first session brought Susan Kite and Jackson 2Bears together in conversation with Elizabeth Barron. The pair of artists provided very nuanced and thoughtful commentary on the Western metaphysics embedded in computation – as read and contrasted by Indigenous cosmology. Jackson 2Bears spoke at length about technological determinism (“technology as destiny”) and simultaneously sketched out how the systems/infrastructures we construct are prone to internalizing a colonial/exploitational mindset, and questioned the necessity of those concentrations of power. Speaking to her work in composition and designing custom performance interfaces, Suzanne Kite discussed thresholds of perception and embodiment, and shared details about the (then) in-progress work Listener, a site specific performance drawing on a hair-braid interface that fuses movement, audio, video, sculpture, and text that creates a “spiral feedback dynamic between body and systems,” that she was using to explore Lakota epistemologies.

Artificial Imagination’s second session put Kristin Anne Carlson, David Rokeby and Chris Salter into dialogue with Nell Tenhaff. Embedded above (watch it!), the conversation focused on slippery notions of embodiment within interactive environments and systems – and across broader digital culture. David Rokeby’s presentation broadly asked “the body is falling out of culture, does this matter?” and he presented commentary from a key moment in the late 1980s – after a decade of creating interactive systems but before the (seemingly imminent) arrival of VR in the ’90s. Kind of a guided tour through his work over those decades, he ruminated on the questions that arise when interfacing the body with logical systems – from both system and user perspectives. These themes were picked up on nicely in Chris Salter’s presentation, which ‘compared and contrasted’ the recent Dreamworks-bankrolled Alien Zoo mixed reality experience and his own Haptic Field; the former traffics in the extreme amplification of the senses while the latter capitalizes on removing stimulus. Finally, Kristin Anne Carlson spoke to dance, and shared recent projects addressing physiotherapy and the application of generative strategies that pulls choreography (and the body) outside its comfort zone.

Not to be upstaged by the earlier sessions on cosmology and the body, the final conversation addressed the prospect of machine consciousness. Moderated by curator Nora O Morchú, Ben Bogart, Sofian Audrey, and Allison Parish discussed systems that think – and what that means for their creators, exactly. Ben Bogart parsed the web of frameworks (‘perception’, ‘learning’, etc.) he needed to model in his work over the last decade, which notably included programming machines to dream. A Pandora’s box of implications for consciousness and sensation, he argued that AI was not simply an inscrutable black box but a means to interrogate ourselves about our bias. Working through a range of projects exploring and re-articulating rudimentary models of intelligence Sofian Audrey evoked early Cybernetics and evolvable hardware; speaking to a very different historical vector, Allison Parrish drew a line that connected Dadist poetry, cut-up methods, and the use of machine learning in contemporary poetry and language manipulation.

Videos for all three sessions are embedded in this post, and they are all worth investing some time into. While you’d expect artists who have dedicated their career to exploring AI and interactive systems would have a lot to say on what is at stake and where the contradictions lie, the degree to which the assembled speakers collectively parse, problematize, and probe the ascendant field is illuminating.

Artifical Imagination Video Documentation | Artengine
Lead image: Plasmosis, a 2013 site-specific underwater installation by Sofian Audry that deposits a sensor-laden artificial entity underwater near a Quebec marina and tasks it with negotiating with its environment.

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