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Diemut Strebe discusses her new installation 'El Turco' at Aichi Triennale

German artist Diemut Strebe tells us about the inspiration and process behind El Turco, an AI powered experiment in language, on display at Aichi Triennale 2022 in Japan.

by Shraddha NairPublished on : Sep 19, 2022

In a debut presentation, artist Diemut Strebe is showcasing El Turco at Aichi Triennale 2022, being held at multiple venues across the Aichi Prefecture in Japan. El Turco, a large triptych video installation, features two digitally animated characters in dialogue. While one of the characters is directed by a human who hides behind the scenes, the other is driven by an open-source, language processing AI system called GPT-3. Strebe is a German-American artist whose practice lies at the intersection of art and science, creating artworks which are equal parts cerebral and creative in their posited concepts. This art installation is no different, proposing a deep inquiry into the meaning of intelligence - its perception and its truth. I caught up with the artist to learn more.

Every time I speak with Strebe, the conversation broadens my understanding of our perceived realities. Last time I spoke to her was about The Prayer, an art installation which explored the crossover between religious discourse and pattern recognition in language processing systems. Although Strebe’s work is driven by technology and employs tools in a very tangible way, it puts forth questions about ideas which are quite intangible - consciousness, intelligence and so forth. Think about her practice as a map. While each artwork references a landmark on the map, there are also clear roadways which lead from one idea to the next. You can go on a journey from one place to another, but only when you take a step back from it all do you really see the true lay of the land. Strebe confirms this saying, “It is sort of a topology of the intersection of art and science, starting a new exploratory adventure into these fields. Very often each scientific field offer very different aesthetic means to discover or develop which makes it surprising to me”.

A closer look at El Turco at Aichi Triennale 2022 | El Turco | Diemut Strebe | STIRworld
A closer look at El Turco at Aichi Triennale 2022 Image: Courtesy of Diemut Strebe

The artist goes on to tell us about the steps that led to the creation of El Turco. She says, “For The Prayer I employed GPT-2 which used transformer technology for language processing, very different from anything that has been done before. But it was difficult to use because it had a high failure rate.” Despite its shortcomings, however, her interaction with this processing system sparked curiosity about the structures of language and dialogue, and how it can be used to measure and understand intelligence.

Socrates and Von Kempelen discuss the Turing Test Video: Courtesy of Diemut Strebe

When GPT-3 came out with boosted resolution and improved data interaction tools, the artist was inspired to think up new ways to interact with the machine. This train of thought eventually led her to El Turco. The name is inspired by The Turk, a hoax chess-playing automaton created by Hungarian author and inventor Wolfgang Von Kempelen in the 18th century. In El Turco, the machine’s character is named Von Kempelen and the character played by a human is named Socrates. Socrates takes up a line of questioning to engage Von Kempelen, taking inspiration from Theaetetus, a discourse by Plato that contemplates the human condition, and our notions of knowledge and intelligence.

Socrates and Von Kempelen discuss artist Marina Abramovic Video: Courtesy of Diemut Strebe

For this project, Strebe was assisted by Steve DiPaola, a scientist who focuses on developing language and drawing systems. She says, “I used his systems for my artwork which allowed me to design the characters the way I wanted it. I wanted something which was very strong in expression but in no way illustrative, and also far removed from the comic style.” The outcome is a simple sketch-style portrait in basic colours. Strebe’s artworks are elevated by their concept and the wonder it generates, and do not lean on visual or aesthetic ideals the way most artists do. In fact, the bare-bones aesthetic of her oeuvre is what allows a deeper inspection of the technology and philosophy.

Socrates and Von Kempelen discuss the ideas of reality and perception Video: Courtesy of Diemut Strebe

The GPT-3 model mathematically generates probability distribution to predict the next word, which is how it mimics understanding. The artist says, “Sometimes it can fail subtly and sometimes drastically but it always fails. I think the media glorifies this as artificial intelligence, but my artwork takes a certain stance toward this type of mystification which doesn't show us really where we stand with AI.” Although Strebe’s practice venerates technology and its prodigal child artificial intelligence, the artist is clear on its current limitations. El Turco is an articulation of the long distance that technology must tread in order to recreate real human intelligence.

A self portrait of the artist | El Turco | Diemut Strebe | STIRworld
Artist Diemut Strebe Image: Courtesy of Diemut Strebe

In El Turco, the two characters explore a wide range of topics from the Turing Test to current socio-political issues and also art. The human avatar persistently questions the AI avatar, to explore the high and low points of the machine’s processing abilities. Strebe laughs as she says, “To me one of the best dialogues is about Marina Abramovic, regarding The Artist Is Present (performed in MoMA in 2010). She had been a major artist for a long time, but I always thought her strongest work was during her collaboration with Ulay, and this performance can be seen as absolutely critical. When Socrates brings it up, Von Kempelen comes up with mainstream responses instead of displaying any causal understanding of relationships in art, so it actually shows that he (the machine) doesn't understand what he is saying at all.”

El Turco is currently on view at the Aichi Triennale until October 2022.

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