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Perry Chen distils impressions arising from his research-based practice

American artist Perry Chen investigates the ideas of complexity and uncertainty of our times through his new body of work, titled Perpetual Novelty.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Feb 12, 2021

I first met Perry Chen in 2018. He was in India for the first ever exhibit of the country on artificial intelligence-created works of art hosted by Nature Morte in New Delhi. I was familiar with the idea of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) in general, but this producing art…that was my first! I had many questions, on authorship, on intellectual property rights, on acquisition, and the future of handmade works itself. Chen was patient in engaging in a conversation with me on the subject. His own art practice is heavily founded on his concerns of unpredictability of the impact of technological developments. He calls himself a ‘visual thinker’ and feels strongly about certain elements and behaviours of the capitalistic and for-profit ecosystem of the art world. “In the arts, it’s not that commercial success is bad, but if we build a society that judges creative work by its economic prospects alone, we will fail the art and culture that is most reflective of humanity,” he says.

Founder of Kickstarter, an agency that helps fund cutting edge creative projects, I speak with Perry Chen on the sidelines of his ongoing exhibition, titled Perpetual Novelty.

We Cannot | Perpetual Novelty| Perry Chen | STIRworld
We Cannot Image: Perry Chen, Courtesy of Nature Morte

Rahul Kumar (RK): Your art practice is informed by the disruptive technology and your explorations question “how we negotiate a world of growing complexity and uncertainty”. Please explain this engagement of yours and why do you prefer to look at “larger patterns and forces rather than focus on specific technological changes”?

Perry Chen (PC): Accelerated by technological change, our world grows ever more complex, opaque and unpredictable. We know that more change is coming - artificial intelligence , gene editing, deep fakes, and we are anxious about the uncertainty brought by such changes. 

We ask - How will artificial intelligence affect us? How will gene editing affect us? We try to comprehend how social media and cell phones are already affecting us. But there’s another important way of looking at what’s happening. Which is that more than any specific technology, event, or phenomena, including COVID-19, climate change and financial crises, it is the increasing complexity of our world ‘itself’ that we must learn to negotiate.

This points to building systems that can deal with unpredictable events better, which means we first need to accept that we have a very limited ability to predict the future. Simply embracing our limitations in this way is a step in the right direction towards the solutions we need.

“Uncertainty is the only certainty there is. And knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security.” - John Allen Paulos

We Aint Seen | Perpetual Novelty| Perry Chen | STIRworld
We Ain’t Seen Image: Perry Chen, Courtesy of Nature Morte

RK: Your current body of works employ appropriated images and texts to represent the intersections of specific phenomena. What phenomena is this and how is it furthering your overall quest with your art and how do you use it as your ‘raw material’ to appropriate this in your art works?

PC: For a project like Perpetual Novelty, I started with a question - how do we negotiate a world of growing complexity and uncertainty? I spent a few months researching, lots of reading, note-taking, and interviews. 

Then I move into a process of artmaking, conceptually building from the ideas that linger with me from my research, and visually building from archival material that will, in eventually configurations, represent these ideas to me.

For Perpetual Novelty, I was working to representing these underlying truths:

  • History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.
  • Change is constant.
  • We were enlightened, now we are entangled. 
  • We ain’t seen nothing yet.
  • We cannot plan what cannot be predicted.
  • We are not them.
History | Perpetual Novelty| Perry Chen | STIRworld
History Image: Perry Chen, Courtesy of Nature Morte

I am a visual thinker, and I have found this process, moving from text-based research to a process of visual distillation, forces me to find the essence of what’s most resonant to me about the topics I am exploring. 

Another pull towards using archival material for me is that it exists and has meaning. This makes things both easier and harder in a way I find challenging. 

We Are Not Them | Perpetual Novelty| Perry Chen | STIRworld
We Are Not Them Image: Perry Chen, Courtesy of Nature Morte

RK: You wear different hats, one that of a technology professional, founder of a funding agency, and an artist. I am sure they do not remain in watertight compartments! How does one inform and influence the other?

PC: It can take a while to see how work that can seem different on the surface connects. I see my work somewhat fitting into three practices: 

  1. Exploring the complexity of our world using research and archival material as entry points. So, this would-be projects like Perpetual Novelty, Computers in Crisis, and Bridge to a Bad Star.
  2. Creation of new formats for generative social exchange and collaboration. This would be the creation of Kickstarter, and other projects like Significant Exchange.
  3. The third practice is around the problems of profit-centric systems; specifically, the need for better structures, tools, and institutions to enable a more generative and less extractive society. I work on this via my promotion and advocacy for things like the Public Benefit Corporation model (in the US), which we reincorporated Kickstarter to be in 2015.

The understanding I gain from projects like Perpetual Novelty directly informs all my other work. Underneath all of these practices is a deep interest in understanding and building better systems.

Change| Perpetual Novelty| Perry Chen | STIRworld
Change Image: Perry Chen, Courtesy of Nature Morte

RK: My interview with you cannot conclude without talking about artificial intelligence in art! I distinctly recall my conversation with you in 2018 on the sidelines of a symposium on the subject. How have things evolved in the past three years in the use of AI for visual art, its acceptance and practice? 

PC: Ha! That's a good question, I haven’t had a chance to follow the progress for artificial intelligence in art these past few years. I am following the progress of AI / machine learning a bit, and I reference one somewhat mindblowing machine learning endeavour in Perpetual Novelty, The Earth Species project, which is a non-profit open source effort to decode animal language using machine learning. If it will succeed is impossible to say, but there’s very few things that I could imagine that could be as revolutionary. 

My issue is not with for-profit endeavours, full stop, but with the sociopathic behaviour of many entities and actors within for-profit systems.

In the arts, it’s not that commercial success is bad, but if we build a society that judges creative work by its economic prospects alone, we will fail the art and culture that is most reflective of humanity.

Perry Chen | Perpetual Novelty| Perry Chen | STIRworld
Perry Chen Image: Perry Chen, Courtesy of Nature Morte

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