Sougwen Chung talks about her robot collaborator D.O.U.G. and the future of AI

Exploring ideas of authorship and agency in a future where technology is embedded in our culture, Chinese-Canadian artist Chung shares her thoughts and tells us about her practice.

by Shraddha Nair Published on : Sep 19, 2020

It’s a strange feeling to contemplate the idea of peace during a time when a global pandemic has overtaken our very existence. As we celebrate the internationally declared day dedicated towards peace, we are compelled to examine what the word really means to us. Is there anything left to celebrate? The word ‘peace' instantly makes me think about war, an internalised dichotomy. War takes on many forms today. War for territory, war for resources, war for control. While on a macro scale these battles pit countries against each other, if you look around, they also pit neighbours against one another. However, war is not only waged amongst humans. The current crisis invites us to think about our strained relationship with our natural environment, and our role in the destabilisation of smaller ecological systems that are key to the maintenance of balance in our natural environment. However, as the Earth turns on its axis, a slow but significant change simmers under the surface. One which engages us in a new worldview - one where we walk side by side, arm in arm with artificially intelligent beings. As our relationship with technology grows more intimate, intricate and intrinsic, we look into the future and gauge how that relationship might have significant influence on our understanding of peace and harmony, going forward. We speak to artist and researcher Sougwen Chung who works in close proximity with robots to understand the implications of such relationships.

Chung in the first iteration of F.R.A.N. | F.R.A.N. | Sougwen Chung | STIRworld
F.R.A.N. explores floral and machine co-naturality Image: Sougwen Chung

For many years Chung has been working with D.O.U.G., an artificial intelligence driven robot, as her creative collaborator. She tells us, “D.O.U.G. is an acronym for Drawing Operations Unit: Generation X. It traces an ongoing investigation into collaborative drawing with robotic forms and synthetic intelligences. Each generation is an investigation of an approach to computational co-creation utilising emerging technologies. The generations engage computer vision, deep learning, electroencephalogram (EEG) readings, expanding in scope and defining the space of human and machine creativity. Through the work I have arrived at various insights, testing research methodologies through embodied and empirical investigation. The work in progress becomes a mirror of movement when engaging with mimicry (generation 1), a window into the shadow self, in a Jungian sense, when engaging with personal data (generation 2), and an interactive kinetic sculptural form expanding my sense perception, or Umwelt, with a multi-robotic system linked to the flow of the city (generation 3). Not only has the focus on embodied feedback loops and self-assembled data helped me grow as an artist and engineer, but it has led to a more dynamic contemplation about the art form of synthesising human and non-human approaches.

Exquisite Corpus is a performance installation exploring the feedback loop between bodies | Exquisite Corpus | Sougwen Chung | STIRworld
Exquisite Corpus is a performance installation exploring the feedback loop between bodies Image: Sougwen Chung

Chinese-Canadian artist Chung, who currently lives and works in Basel, Switzerland, negotiates her own work and subjects of authorship and agency as she re-imagines our relationships with robot beings, “I was watching a documentary on the activist Grace Lee Boggs the other day, and an excerpt from it really resonated with me. At 99, Grace says “There are times when expanding our imaginations is what is required.” I linger at that sentiment because I believe our imagination, by and large, is about what ‘AI’ is and what it requires is re-evaluation and re-engagement. We are able to see personal relationships as human animals easier because that’s what we are used to. But the encounter between humans and AI systems traverse the personal, social, and political. What I investigate with the D.O.U.G. project is the question of authorship in collaborative machine frameworks, but also one that is not merely functional but contributes to the mutual development of the human and non-human subject through iterative, empirical sensibilities. While one could say the work is speculative in nature, the project is grounded in and implicated by the technological capabilities of the current moment. How can we invent new interaction models that expand one’s conception of creativity?”. She goes on to say, “Under the framework of collaboration I am reminded of the history of technological development in various cultural histories through Yuk Hui’s research in cosmotechnics. Advancement of technology has driven much of how societies are shaped. At the moment the majority of what we see as AI and digital technology have emerged from the western world. That in and of itself constructs an unnecessary limitation to the imagination, as those technological systems have amplified western values. The future of our relationships with AI is one in which the assertion of agency is necessary for our survival as species. I submit that art, philosophy, and the humanities play a vital role in the examination of the role of the AI systems of the future”.

Exquisite Corpus was performed in Mexico City in 2019 | Exquisite Corpus by Sougwen Chung | STIRworld
Exquisite Corpus was performed in Mexico City in 2019 Image: Sougwen Chung

Chung goes on to contemplate the role of the artist in a future world in which machine and technology are culturally embedded, “Art can help shape the technology that shapes us. Through my Drawing Operations project, I have been able to shape my own artistic sensibility with my art practice through robotic engineering and machine learning. That being said, there’s a lot to unpack in the question of ‘technological intervention’ and ‘peace and harmony’ of the human world. One could argue that the human world is hardly peaceful and harmonious by default, and technological systems that produce automation to scale create convenience and a reduction of the labour needed to gather resources for human survival. At the same time, machine automation supporting unregulated industrialisation contributes to an unrealistic view of resources and a general imbalance in the world. The reality is undoubtedly more complex than denotes simple binaries or value assessments. It’s a topic with many points of views, perspectives and histories. For the purposes of time I can speak to the role of artists in responding to and shaping the zeitgeist, the cultural moment in which she inhabits. I am interested in the idea of artistic interventions as prescience, as foreshadowing, particularly in the realm of arts and science. An art practice has the capacity to explore manifestations of the subconscious through technological mediums. The Black Box, perhaps, of the conscious mind. In this way, the artistic practice becomes a mechanism through which artefacts of speculation and contemplation are manifested for society to look inward and regard itself in a medium specific way. Artistic explorations define perimeters of technological mediums. For traditional technologies like painting, the art form traces of way of seeing within the limitations the static limitations of paint. For interactive technologies there is the promise of development through the act of making and the accumulation of data which can be read statistically. Through this feedback loop, the ways of seeing are depicted but also constructed. I find this particularly engaging as an ‘artistic intervention’ as it has potential to create new non-institutional knowledge and structures for understanding the self and its relationship to and construction of ‘world’.”

A portrait of the artist | Sougwen Chung | STIRworld
A portrait of the artist Sougwen Chung Image: Sougwen Chung

While Chung’s oeuvre is fairly consistent to the point of repetition in both aesthetic and palette, her conceptual exploration is where the intrigue lies. While this might make her research and ideas a bit distant for the viewer, and slightly out of reach for those not well versed in the lexicon of Chung’s thought processes, these experiments hold the key to our future relationships with artificially intelligent machinery.

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