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In the trailer for Lawrence Lek’s 2017 film Geomancer — played during a panel on “AI & Creativity” he was involved in at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam — a conversant, seemingly sentient AI asks viewers an unanswerable question. “Do you know what it is to see every wave, every bird, and every animal, a trillion shards of sunlight reflected on the water?” It encourages the viewer to consider a nonhuman perspective. But the real question at the center of the event was not whether AI could be conscious, or even conscientious, but whether it could be considered creative. Responses from the panel’s four speakers were varied, but they shared a common disinterest with the question itself, rejecting the presumption that human value judgements could be applied to something nonhuman. New ways of thinking are required with new technologies, rather than the blanket application of old criteria onto new paradigms.
This idea of shifting positionality is central to Lek’s visual art. Speculative provocations starting from real-world possibilities, much of his work is interested in “uprooting clichés of art and AI,” as he put it, challenging common preconceptions about AI and its application and upending the “default image spaces” in visual representations of future worlds. AIDOL, his new feature film at Rotterdam, adopts the “perspective of a future consciousness.” Set in an imagined 2065 Malaysia and rendered entirely in video-game-like CGI, it tells the story of an electronic music producer called Diva who, tasked with making a soundtrack for an e-sports tournament, secretly employs an AI (Geomancer, from the previous film) to craft crowd-pleasing hits.
Structured like a video album, divided by track titles and scored by continuous electronic-future-pop which Lek himself composed, AIDOL acts as much as an environment for ideas as it does a narrative work. It’s an exercise in world-building that weaves in elements from his other projects, its setting acting much like a sandbox in a game. (The e-sports play out in the background of the environments Lek and CG artist Clifford Sage created, and interactive projects they’ve made together before have been actually playable.) In the Q&A after, Lek stated that he would like the film to act like a repository for technologies that are already in the process of being rendered obsolete. Phrases like “MMO”or “e-sports” may well mean nothing by 2025, much less 2065.
Lek’s imagined collaboration is based in reality. Several high-profile musicians have programmed artificial intelligences for music projects. Actress and Holly Herndon both pitched their recent AI projects as collaborations, emphasizing the machine element to actively decenter the human role. Likewise, in the AI & Creativity talk, AIDOL’s speculative ideas were mirrored by real-world examples of technology like BachBot, machine-learning software that generates new replications of Bach’s symphonies. Easy-on-the-ear imitations, most listeners will find them indistinguishable from the originals.
Lek also noted in the talk that a contemporary artist’s first audience is often the algorithm, which dictates whether online media will reach a wider human audience. He argued that the “auteur-made film” is “only a sliver of the available visual media” that the average viewer will consume on any given day, and the fiction feature form is unduly afforded supremacy in cultural discourse. He also suggested that his own film’s form could be seen to be expressing the same questions as its text. “Is this a narrative film,” he asked a (quite bemused) audience in Rotterdam, “or a 83-minute-long marketing video” produced by the film’s fictitious corporation to promote the album it contains?
Lek said that AIDOL came from the question “What would the dominant visual culture of the future look like?” and further, whether it might be possible to “make something 100% synthetic and still extract emotion from it.” As panelist Professor Wijnand Ijsselsteijn explained, all artificial intelligences currently require human input at some stage. Pitching human and machine creators as equals, AIDOL looks past whether creativity can come entirely from a computer to question whether the idea of creativity itself needs to be redefined in a machine-driven world. As Lek has said in interviews, it’s really exciting “when somehow the false expresses what might be real.”
AIDOL played at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. It is available to stream on Festival Scope through February 23.