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STIR in conversation with the curators of techart festival FutureFantastic

Kamya Ramachandran and Archana Prasad discuss how FutureFantastic employs art as a mode of storytelling to initiate agency for climate change.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : May 30, 2023

Is climate change for real? And even if so, is it just part of the evolution of Earth? There was once an ice age, then dinosaurs roamed freely before they got extinct, and the humans came into being. So, what if now there is global warming that will make several of the existing flora-fauna vanish? This is certainly one way to look at the so-called climate crisis. Melting ice caps and acidification of oceans, draughts and floods, and wildfires are some of the impacts, the scale and influence of which is still being researched.

Technological advancement, specifically artificial intelligence (AI), is scary and enchanting at the same time. As much as we need to interrogate the bias and ethical issues behind the use of AI, there is also a need to question its role and impact on our environments. Many artists today have been engaging and experimenting with machine learning processes in both creative and critical ways. FutureFantastic brought together a group of creatives working across different forms, disciplines, and locations from the Global North to the Global South in collaboration to explore and interrogate the role of art and technology in the urgent context of the climate crisis. Art has been essential in helping us go beyond the cold and ominous statistics of climate change data and statistics, and helped us connect with our environments and ecologies, to understand the urgency and need to act now.

FutureFantastic—over a three-day conference deliberated on pertinent questions—can AI and art come together to help us pay attention, extend care and imagine a world where the mindful use of technology can bring about a radically open, environmentally equitable and optimistic future?

I speak with Kamya Ramachandran, Festival Director & Co-curator, and Archana Prasad, art festival’s Co-curator and Advisor about the conference and its outcomes.

How to make an ocean, 2023, AI Moirologist, 3D Artwork, Kasia Molga | FutureFantastic | STIRworld
How to make an ocean, 2023, AI Moirologist and 3D Artwork, Kasia Molga Image: Courtesy of Future Fantastic

Rahul Kumar: What is the genesis of the three-day program? What are some of the gaps that were intended to be addressed through the initiative?

Kamya Ramachandran: We live in precarious times. While technology like artificial intelligence and its development feels like it is outpacing our collective ability to grasp its implications on the one hand, we have the global climate crisis on the other. All of this is complex and feels overwhelming to navigate. What could a coming together of creative minds do in this regard? Could the emerging practice of creative technologies produce new forms of storytelling that help us imagine a better tomorrow? The FutureFantastic Festival was conceptualised to further the field of new and emerging art practices within India, presenting not only a core set of collaborative artworks commissioned by us, but also an eclectic mix of curated artworks by international artists. It was timely that the festival of AI Art manifested amidst heated public discourse around AI in general and AI for art in particular. The artworks presented at the festival critically examined the current state of AI, be it with regards to algorithmic bias and misclassification (as seen in Poetics of Garbage) or the labour of making and working with datasets (as seen in Where Do I come From, Where Do I go?). Some notable artworks embraced the positive potential of AI using object detection (as seen in Give me a sign) and pose recognition capabilities (as seen in Wood Wide Web) to create interactive artworks, thus going beyond the hype created around generative art by Dall-E & Midjourney which has become a rather reductive view of what AI Art can do.

Archana Prasad: As we stand on the brink of a new era, with corporations racing to exploit the full potential of generative AI for their own profit, it is imperative that we pause and reflect on the costs versus the benefits to humanity, and the planet at large. More recently, experts like Dr. Hinton, the acknowledged Godfather of AI, have joined a growing group of experts demanding guardrails on this technology. We have been working closely with AI since 2009 through our programs at Jaaga, always seeking to learn and understand the very cutting-edge of such technologies and how it might be useful towards envisioning a better world. And now with the BeFantastic fellowship and FutureFantastic programming, we have a stronger, larger, yet close-knit global community of creative, collaborative minds that can choose to warn against the dangers as well as showcase the value of these technologies as they manifest a vision for a better future. As we collectivise, we have the power to bend the world towards a more positive, nuanced path that can help shape a better future for all. As I reflect on the words of Dr. Anandan, Founder & Former Director of Microsoft Research India & Wadhwani AI for Social Impact, who said to me in a conversation about the future in the context of AI, "Good will prevail," I am filled with hope and a renewed sense of purpose. We can build a future where the use of AI technology is guided by ethics and a sense of responsibility, and we can work together to create a world that is more open, equitable, and optimistic.

Wood Wide Web, 2023, AI Generated and skeletal tracker for trees, Kanchan Joneja , Kristina Pulejkova, Anupam Mahajan , Cameron Naylor | FutureFantastic | STIRworld
Wood Wide Web, 2023, AI Generated and skeletal tracker for trees, Kanchan Joneja, Kristina Pulejkova, Anupam Mahajan, Cameron Naylor Image: Courtesy of FutureFantastic

Rahul: The digital footprint is said to have a far greater impact on climate and ecology than the global aviation industry put together. How was this aspect addressed in the conference?

Kamya: The festival based itself on the foundation of BeFantastic’s annual international TechArt fellowships that opened its doors to global fellows willing to experiment and explore new technologies together. Climate change, thus proposed as a topic—very global in its nature of discourse with local manifestations—provided a common and relatable thematic for our geographically diverse community to engage in deep and meaningful exchange. While we were very conscious about the energy intensive nature of technology usage, we have also been rather aware of a global surge to call upon culture as a prime motivator to move the needle on climate related issues. Emerging art practices which embraced possibilities of artificial intelligence and machine learning, held the promise of presenting new art experiences that were interactive, responsive, immersive and sensorial, thus engaging diverse audiences, child or adult, abled and differently abled. We set about asking, could new mediums of storytelling provoke audiences on taking action around pressing and urgent societal issues? The festival and the fellowship that preceded it became an opportunity and platform to unpack critical discourse around AI and climate change from a perspective that is nuanced, sensitive and even against the grain of the dominant narratives. Having set this frame and focus internally within the program, we challenged ourselves to look around and curate artists, thinkers and speakers from around the world who were on similar journeys, asking similar questions. The festival hosted points of view from esteemed electronic and new media festivals, Ars Electronica 2022 festival titled Planet B (in Linz, Austria), along with that of Impakt Festival 2020 titled Zero Footprint (Utrecht, the Netherlands) in a panel discussion titled “Curating for Climate.” We also enabled workshops like “Sharing a Planet with AI: Building a Manifesto of Shared Responsibilities” that brought an eclectic local community of participants along with international artists present to start a process of setting frameworks we could begin to operate from within. The festival also challenged itself to assess its environmental impact as much as possible by ensuring minimal use of plastic, printing on canvas, encouraging public transport and making that public on the website, engaging a local non-profit, Saahas Zero Waste to support in ensuring not only the reduction of waste but its responsible disposal among other efforts.

Archana: The festival pointed to our conviction that AI is a critical technology that will profoundly impact the future of the world. We believe that as artists interested in technology as a key medium, we have a responsibility to explore the benefits and positive values that such technologies can bring, while also understanding and bringing to the fore, the challenges and risks associated with it. The festival was not just about showcasing art but also about creating a space where people could come together and have honest and open conversations about the role of AI in shaping the future of our planet. We wanted to bring together a global community of creative minds to learn, understand, and demand guardrails for these AI technologies, especially from profit-motivated corporations and organisations. Ultimately, our goal was to inspire a new generation of artists, technologists, and activists to harness the power of AI in service of a more just, equitable, and sustainable future for all. We believe that AI has the potential to help us address some of the most pressing issues of our time, but only if we approach it with mindfulness and care, demand transparency and accountability from those who develop and control these technologies.

From the Curatorial Note: Through FutureFantastic, we ask — can AI and art come together to help us pay attention, extend care, and imagine a world where the mindful use of technology can bring about a radically open, environmentally equitable and optimistic future? 

Palimpsest, 2023, Mixed Reality Performance, Stem Dance Kampni, conceptualised by Madhu Natraj | FutureFantastic | STIRworld
Palimpsest, 2023, Mixed Reality Performance, Stem Dance Kampni, conceptualised by Madhu Natraj Image: Courtesy of FutureFantastic

Rahul: What were some of the significant outcomes of the various discussions at the conference? How are these intended to become actionable?

Kamya: If art is known to absorb and reflect the contemporaneity of its time, then the main intent of the festival was to showcase experiments and serious innovation in creative practice that explores on the one hand artificial intelligence and on the other the climate crisis. The festival hopes and continues to be committed to growing this nascent field for India and beyond. It encouraged both casual as well as structured conversations around these main driving themes. In the panel titled Curating for Climate, the discussants who represented premier international festivals and organisations including Science Gallery Bengaluru’s next exhibition titled Carbon, which unpacked what it meant for art events to address the theme of climate change and why it makes a difference especially to a local populace when compared to academic conferences and world forums for the same topic. Similarly, a panel titled Talking Back: A conversation on Generative AI for the 21st century discussed the nuances of the maelstrom of generative AI and what it would mean for our collective futures while AI Art: A Marriage of Heaven and Hell delved into the politics of how creative practitioners could understand the idea of AI and its ethical use. As Padmini Ray Murray, Co-Facilitator of the workshop Sharing a Planet with AI: Building a Manifesto of Shared Responsibilities states, “It is essential that these concepts be made more accessible so that the discourse is informed rather than driven by hype,” and that was a key takeaway for many who attended the festival.

Where Do I Come From? Where Do I go? The labour of datasets, 2023, AI generated installation, Malavika Pc, Papia Chakraborty and Asli Dinc , Pritha Kundu |FutureFantastic | STIRworld
Where Do I Come From? Where Do I go? The labour of datasets, 2023, AI generated installation, Malavika Pc, Papia Chakraborty and Asli Dinc, Pritha Kundu Image: Courtesy of FutureFantastic

Rahul: What’s NEXT for BeFantastic?

Kamya: BeFantastic feels positive and committed to the idea of tilling and amplifying this constantly emerging and nascent field of tech art. We do this through our CoLab programs, short term workshops or annual fellowships, online or on ground convenings. Our Dialog series that includes panel discussions, fireside chats and ‘ask me anything’ sessions are delivered throughout the year and is invested in bringing together thought leadership in the domains we wish to push boundaries within. Hand in hand with this effort of creating, is the valuable work of showcasing either through large scale homegrown festivals like FutureFantastic or pop ups representing tech enabled artworks in other festivals, galleries and even foyers. Tech is changing at a rapid pace, and what if creative practitioners could feel empowered enough to change the course of its discussion with confidence? BeFantastic has helped open up such an opportunity not only for cross disciplinary but also cross-cultural exchange. From this sense of camaraderie nurtured by our community of knowledge sharing, peer learning creatives and technology practitioners we hope to build a robust ecosystem of tech art innovation in the arts that provides an alternative to institutionalised learning and creation. While our genesis has been supported by the fertile ground of Bengaluru's innovation culture, BeFantastic aims to continue engaging creatives, audiences and patrons alike through the country and even globally with the presence of its leadership team in Asia and the United States.

STIR was a media partner for the FutureFantastic Festival held in Bengaluru (India).

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