by Shraddha NairDec 21, 2019
It is a rare thing to come across an artist like Diemut Strebe. A highly conceptual thinker at the forefront of both art and technology, Strebe presents her viewers with philosophical challenges, which will have you reaching into the recesses of your mind and the hollows of your soul to re-evaluate your convictions. Her work is visually minimalist but conceptually maximalist. The artworks she presents are difficult to ignore and the questions they raise approach ideas of ethics, morality and mortality with an unequalled elegance.
Diemut Strebe is a Germany-born artist who has been living in the United States for 10 years now, where she just completed a three-year long residency at the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology. Strebe was trained formally in the extensive field of visual art and graduated from a northern German art school with a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree with honours. Her practice lies at the intersection of art and technology, using a range of media wider than most others.
Strebe creates profound installations, which use living and biological materials, nano-materials, experimental set-ups, installations and videos. She works in collaboration with scientists to push the boundaries of art itself, referencing philosophy and literature, while navigating various disciplines, for instance human and plant genetics, quantum and astrophysics and engineering. Strebe explains, “Focused on the advanced science of our era, I feel attracted to affirm the romantic paradigm of ‘the new’ and the avant-garde roots of modern art throughout the medium itself and its combination with the arts”.
While Strebe breaks precedent with every work of art she produces, the immensely complex ideas and processes behind the artwork are conveyed to the audience with incredible simplicity, making her practice not only relevant but accessible as well. In Strebe’s most recent creative endeavour, she focuses her attention on the spiritual realm by using technology to engage the viewer in an experience, which encourages them to re-evaluate or reaffirm their beliefs in larger, human-created value systems. The Prayer is an installation by Strebe, which was on view at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, France. It is a part of a larger exhibition titled Neurons, Simulated Intelligences, which started from February 26, and was to be on view till April 20, 2020. However, due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, the Centre Pompidou is temporarily closed. The exhibition highlights the ties between research by artists, architects, designers and musicians and the latest scientific and industrial advances.
The Prayer is a physical manifestation of Strebe’s enquiry into the existential relationship we have with the supernatural, an exploration enabled by artificial intelligence. At its very core, the installation exists to explore this question - “How would a divine epiphany appear to artificial intelligence?” To put it simply, the robot in The Prayer uses a database of existing religious and spiritual scripts to develop its own, through a deep learning software. Naturally, any form of artificial intelligence required to create needs a massive database to work on. The Prayer is no different in this regard and uses a diverse list of sacred texts, while remaining open to extension in order to increase coverage and variability. The current list includes The Bible - old and new Testament (Christian), Bhagavad Gita (Hinduism), Rig Veda (Hinduism), Quran (Islam), The Thirteen Classics (Confucianism), The Zhuang Zhou (Taoism), The Noble Eightfold Path (Buddhism), The Talmud (Rabbinic Judaism), The Book of Mormon (Mormons), Book of the Dead (Mayan) and The Popol Vuh (Mayan) along with many others. The database also includes a collection of ‘private prayers’.
Strebe elaborates, “We also added a minor quantity of private prayers as how an individual would pray to God in a non-canonic way. In principle this can be a very simple outcry of a personal urge or a longer narrative as you can read such ‘informal’ contemplations from Teilhard de Chardin, Newton or Leibniz praying to God. We included, for example, Erasmus prayers, a thinker who integrated scientific thought into humanist/ religious considerations”.
The Prayer is an installation, which both leans on as well as questions the potential of artificial intelligence itself. Strebe says, “Already current results indicate that AI could reach out much further and deeper into ‘the unknown’, detecting subtle patterns and combinations in vast and complex amounts of data, transferring information and drawing precise predictions we could never see and draw on our own without AI technology. But the results are still read out by us. This could change, or not, in the future: The installation could touch on a potential principal limitation of AI learning concerning any capacities of understanding its own results and the universe. Such a potential principal lack would manifest most obviously, and in particular in so called holistic cognitive activities like religious observance and the creation of art”. In this installation, Strebe invites us to ask the challenging questions about existence, consciousness, gods, larger entities in the context of artificial intelligence and AGI ambition.
Although this might be a personal favourite for me in Strebe’s heterogeneous oeuvre, it isn’t her first time grappling with themes which shake the foundation of our thoughts. Strebe received widespread recognition for her installation titled Sugababe in 2014, which used cells from the body of a living descendent of Vincent van Gogh to create a clone of the artist’s infamously cut off ear grown from tissue engineered cartilage. Once again, Strebe asks the larger questions. Sugababe is a concept which alludes to the ideas of universally present stereotypic romantic image of the artist as a genius, using its physical form to ask questions of ethicality in genetic engineering with an overarching theme, which references Plutarch's Ship of Theseus paradox applied at a molecular level. Sugababe was exhibited at ZKM (The Center for Art and Media) in Karlsruhe, Germany, and most recently at Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, Japan. It was created in collaboration with a team of scientists from several institutions such as Harvard, MIT and CURML.
In a more recent work, Strebe worked in close collaboration with MIT to create a black colour, which broke the existing record of highest light absorption of a material. ‘Vantablack’ was developed by Surrey NanoSystems in the UK over six years ago, which was patented by Anish Kapoor’s studio for artistic uses shortly after. This was met with outspoken resistance by artists across the world, insisting Kapoor must #sharetheblack. Strebe says, “We use a new developed method patented by MIT that is measurably the blackest black on earth, which can be used by any artist. We do not believe in exclusive ownership of concepts, ideas or materials in arts”. In Redemption of Vanity, a 16.78 carat natural yellow diamond (Fancy Vivid Yellow SI1, Radiant shape, value $2,000,000) is covered with the blackest black on earth, which makes the diamond appear to disappear. The installation explores immaterial and material values attached to objects and ideas, while also questioning art, luxury, society and the idea of ownership while reinforcing the notion of technology consistently outdoing itself. The work is a nod to Heraclitus’ theory where he states that extreme opposites are in fact, identical. The clarity of the diamond and the dense tone of the black material denote an interesting dichotomy in spite of being created from a singular raw material - carbon. The installation was showcased at New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street in 2019.
Diemut Strebe not only creates highly thought-provoking artworks, which directly invite the viewer into a space of thoughtful multiplicity but with every installation she tells the story of our world as we know it as though from the perspective of an outsider. Strebe’s work allows for open-ended interpretation, making the very act of viewing her work a dynamic conversation rather than a static act. Some other intriguing works by Strebe include Social Sculpture, which references Joseph Beuys' famous performance ‘I Like America and America Likes Me’ and ‘Wigner’s Friends’, art projects which exist within the premise of quantum physics, in which Strebe sends part of the installation into outer space.