‘Uncanny Valley’ interrogates the multifaceted possibilities of technology

With a range of artists and collectives, the exhibition at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco highlights that technology is changing the human modes of existence.

by Dilpreet Bhullar Published on : Oct 22, 2020

The questions around the possible scenario where art and machine are in a successful union, not sporadically, greet us when we watch an art exhibition around the two mediums or even read a textual piece about it. These inquiries about the feasibility factor also address the fleeting, yet persistent, doubts and reservations on its prosperity. The uncertainty stems from the likelihood that such a display is missing human intervention. The exhibition Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI, organised by Claudia Schmuckli, Curator-in-Charge of Contemporary Art and Programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, puts the matrix of art and artificial intelligence (AI) to test, but with a promise to hold the humans at the centre. The exhibition showcases an intergenerational, international group of artists and activist collectives—including Zach Blas, Ian Cheng, Simon Denny, Stephanie Dinkins, Forensic Architecture, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Pierre Huyghe, Christopher Kulendran Thomas in collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann, Agnieszka Kurant, Lawrence Lek, Trevor Paglen, Hito Steyerl, Martine Syms, and the Zairja Collective.

Installation view of Stephanie Dinkins’ ‘Conversations with Bina48 | Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI | Stephanie Dinkins| STIRworld
Installation view of Stephanie Dinkins’ Conversations with Bina48 Image: Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

When it is regularly debated that domain of the creative imagination is ruled by the human race with a little room for the urgency of mechanical intelligence, the exhibition through the artistic lens interrogates the omnipresence of technology and how it functions to shape our identities. In doing so, it aims to foster a critical set of vocabulary for the discipline of AI and arts. In an interview with STIR, Schmuckli elucidates on this debate, when she says, “I prefer to think —as Okwui Enwezor suggested—of many different futures. The many futures of art certainly include AI becoming more accessible to non-specialised users. But I am not sure that conceptual is a helpful term to envision the many things art might become. If the history of art has taught us anything, then it is that narrowing our imaginary opportunities down to finite and already historized categories may not give us many options. If anything, I think we will see stronger work that tears apart what a concept is and where that notion is positioned in the history of thought”.

Zach Blas, The Doors, 2019 Video Still |Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI | Zach Blas | STIRworld
Zach Blas, The Doors, 2019, video still Image: Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The title of the exhibition is borrowed from the concept of the ‘uncanny valley’, expounded by Japanese engineer Masahiro Mori, which treads upon the necessity of the human nemesis at the arrival of the machines. The challenges are extended when the uproar of SEO, resources of data mining and cloud infrastructure dictate the human modes of existence. Leveraging on the location of the museum that is not far from the Silicon Valley, Schmuckli talks about the dependency on technology for the survival of the human race, “Considering the severity of the worldwide health crisis we are currently facing, it looks like our survival will increasingly depend on an effective combination of strong and carefully regulated artificial intelligence, advances in bioengineering, and maybe even terraforming. Therefore, it will be dependent not only on how to steer talent to make bold propositions in those directions but also on how to create effective regulations that protect the rights of the individual. The way artists interpret and make diagnostics, as well as how they create worlds of their own will be vital as well: the collision of imaginations that only art objects can produce helps other fields”.

Installation of Ian Cheng BOB (Bag of Beliefs) |Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI | Ian Cheng | STIRworld
Installation of Ian Cheng BOB (Bag of Beliefs) Image: Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

To talk about the lopsidedness of the relationship shared between human and technology, the exhibition has Trevor Paglen’s They Took the Faces from the Accused and the Dead . . . (SD18) installation with more than 3,000 mugshots from the archives of the American National Standards Institute. The installation raises the importance of the ethical usage of the technology, when the institute used its collection of images to train early facial-recognition technologies — in the absence of the prior consent of those pictured. In a similar vein, Stephanie Dinkins’ installation investigates the value systems that connect the building blocks of the AI and human identity. Her conversations with Bina48, a robot without an understanding of race and gender, assess the social robot’s coding of technology, race, gender and social parity. Based on the Tamagotchi algorithmic, Ian Cheng’s digitally simulated AI creature BOB (Bag of Beliefs) is based on the interdependency syndrome between carbon and silicon forms of intelligence. The online interaction of the visitors is instrumental to the growth factor and behavioural responses of the algorithmic. Here the responsibility for its well-being is shared equally by the human interventions.

Using the unreal engine, Forensic Architecture generated thousands of photorealistic 'synthetic' images, situating the Triple-Chaser in approximations of real-world environments | Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI | Forensic Architecture | STIRworld
Using the unreal engine, Forensic Architecture generated thousands of photorealistic 'synthetic' images, situating the Triple-Chaser in approximations of real-world environments. Coloured 'masks' tell the classifier where in the image the Triple-Chaser grenade exists Image: Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Schmuckli takes recourse to Greek mythology to help viewers know what the exhibition entails: “To use a familiar but effective mythological analogy: exhibitions should resemble the challenge of entering Daedalus’ labyrinth. You have to get lost to sharpen your senses. You have to get lost to be able to digest information and propositions that are not comfortable. Being lost can produce metamorphosis if you are willing to find your own thread. If you do not, if you prefer for things to be handed to you in easily digestible bites or if you simply want to be entertained, then this is not for you. You can be like Theseus and Ariadne. Or you can be like the Minotaur and his victims who remain unchanged, lost, isolated. The Minotaur just waits in the middle of the labyrinth until his challenger tires of their quest. The Minotaur gets the easy bites. The exhibition has many threads. It shows how old questions have accrued new urgency. It shows how AI reframes cultural tropes such as animism, the double, the alter ego, and the portal, which artists have used for centuries”.

Trevor Paglen, detail view of ‘They Took the Faces from the Accused and the Dead... (SD18)’, 2019, silver gelatine print, pins 3240 individual images: 225 × 360 in |Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI | Trevor Paglen | STIRworld
Trevor Paglen, detail view of They Took the Faces from the Accused and the Dead... (SD18), 2019, silver gelatine print, pins 3240 individual images: 225 × 360 in. (571.50 × 914.40 cm) Image: Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The human capacity to go beyond the accurate calculations and streamline the fluidity of creative imagination merits its superiority. Encouraging the same thought, the exhibition is an exploration of the philosophical, political, and poetic questions and problems raised by AI. Having said that, a walk for the potential symbiotic relationship between the machines and humans still remains unscaled.

The exhibition is on view until June 26, 2021 at Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

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