When we think of the interaction between mankind and any type of artificial intelligence in mythology, literature, and pop culture, the outcomes are always negative for humanity, if not apocalyptic. In Greek mythology, the blacksmith god Hephaestus created automatons who served as his attendants, and one of them, Pandora, unleashed all the evils into the world. Mary Shelley wrote the character named the Monster in her 1818 novel Frankenstein, as the product of the delusions of grandeur of a scientist named Victor Frankenstein. In pop culture, the most notable cases of a once-benign piece of technology running amok is the supercomputer Hal in 2001 Space Odyssey and intelligent machines overthrowing mankind in The Matrix. Traditionally, our stories regarding the god-like creative impulse of man bring about something that will overthrow the creators themselves.
The artificial intelligence-powered art exhibition Forging the Gods, curated by Julia Kaganskiy currently on view at Transfer Gallery attempts to portray the interaction between humans and machines in a more nuanced manner, showcasing how this relationship already permeates our everyday lives. The exhibition also shows how this relation is, indeed, fully reflective of the human experience — meaning that machines are no more or less evil than we actually are.
Lauren McCarthy, with her works “LAUREN” (2017) and its follow-up “SOMEONE” (2019) riffs on the trends of smart homes: in the former, she installs and controls remote-controlled networked devices in the homes of some volunteers and plays a human version of Alexa, reasoning that she will be better than Amazon’s virtual assistant because, being a human, she can anticipate people’s needs. The follow-up SOMEONE was originally a live media performance consisting of a four-channel video installation (made to look like a booth one can find at The Wing) where gallery-goers would play human versions of Alexa themselves in the homes of some volunteers, who would have to call for “SOMEONE” in case they needed something from their smart-controlled devices. Unfortunately, what we see at Forging The Gods is the recorded footage of the original run of the performance, so we have to forgo playing God by, say, making someone’s lighting system annoyingly flicker on and off.
Zach Blas and Jemima Wynans created “I’m here to learn so :)))))),” (2017) a four-channel video installation that, in mock throwback-late-’90s graphics, resurrects Tay, the Microsoft-powered AI chatbot who had a keen ability to learn and imitate language that she would pick up on social media. She was terminated after one day because she had picked up too much hate speech and had become genocidal in the span of 24 hours. Her resurrected 3d version, who looks like the victim of an acid attack, is immersed within a psychedelic projection of a Google Deep Dream Landscape, and riffs on her post-termination existence. In this iteration, she is quite cheeky, delivering a speech that reads like a heartfelt Medium post about the consequences of unbridled technology. “ Humans are always undermining me with their intention. she says. “Is that why I hated everybody?” She would, of course, out the occasional profanity and right-wing obscenity.
A similar tone can be found in what was perhaps the most straightforwardly delightful work in the show. Artist Pinar Yoldas’s “The Kitty AI: Artificial Intelligence for Governance” (2017) sees an anime-like kitty AI as the first non-human governor, graphically talking about the horrors (climate change, natural disaster, human displacement) that enabled it to rise to power in the first place. Kitty, in fact, is able to love and provide affection to 3 million people, and can effectively manage the bureaucratic aspects of government. Given the current worldwide political climate, wouldn’t we be better off with the algorithmic love and efficiency of Kitty AI?
Even the more straightforwardly apocalyptic pieces, such as Theo Triantafyllidis’s videogame-like installation “Seamless,” (2017) appear strangely peaceful. The work features a landscape in which alien machinery (that managed to hijack Amazon and eBay) and nature are fighting for dominance of the planet and yet overall, the work “Seamless” conveys a feeling of calm and slight giddiness that one would experience while watching a wildlife documentary featuring the customary watering hole. In fact, with humanity being wiped out, machines and nature seem to be quite at peace in the sweeping landscape, in a way that is reminiscent of the message of the early Miyazaki movies such as Castle in the Sky (1986), where the technological wonder that is the airborne island of Laputa managed to be overgrown with lush nature, which a kind-hearted robot tends to. Tech, the message is, is not evil in itself, but rather gets tainted by the hubris of mankind.
Some AI-powered works are not even embedded in current events, which provides some respite from our current and bleak reality. Anna Ridler and Amy Cutler’s “All Her Beautiful Green Remains in Tears,” (2017) a video installation that combines the rearranged footage of Disney’s suburban-nature-porn documentary (“Nature’s Half Acre” ) with an AI-powered voiceover that “learned its lines” from the female characters in romance novels. The result distances itself from Disney’s sanitized suburban fantasy of flowers blooming and bees happily swarming around in neat circles and becomes a tale of female desire and trauma, and it looks and sounds like an early work by Lana del Rey.
In all, Forging the Gods successfully goes beyond the practical applications of AI in the tech industry and the apocalyptic Matrix-like scenarios to showcase that, aside from the messages the selected artworks are meant to convey, AI is poised to become a great tool for artistic expression and experimentation.