Art is a net that captures time and life and sometimes a unique moment of historic change. The exhibition, SHIFT- AI and a Future Community (KI und eine Zukünftige Gemeinschaft), held in the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart, has spread its net wide. Nine art installations explore how AI is changing community into an evolving human-nature-technology relationship.
These works are not deafening cries against a dystopian future but a more subtle, unnerving, yet intriguing set of windows into our possible future. The art invites us to seek our own answers to the questions: do we want the shift in our lives that risks accompanying AI? Can we manage the shift to something we want? Will we stay human? Is the future beyond human?
“Amazonian Flesh – how to hang in trees during strike?” by knowbotiq looks like a representation of a jungle’s inter-connected liana made of rope, with nodes where the creatures find refuge. But the installation is made from wire, not nature. The nodes are big enough to insert your head, but there are no creatures here, only screens. Are these windows onto what life has become inside the virtual network where humanity has been uploaded? Or are these AI’s memories of humanity as once was?
Three posters watch over this web of AI life. Two ask, “What is your strike”. One with a gentle-looking robot saying, “We take care of you”. Another states, “we are more than data”, and shows shaking hands, but both arms are cut at the wrist. Should we trust this future? Engage? And is the art prescient, saying there will be a future where humankind goes on strike against the new leaders: AI?
Visually more attractive are the floating faces by Heather Dewey-Hagborg, titled “Probably Chelsea”, with the faces AI’s prediction of Chelsea Manning’s face building on a genetic sample and personal data, including that she went through gender-affirming surgery. The thirty faces, while different, look very human at first sight, but their skin is almost pixelated. The hollow heads are just face, neck and ears. They look like a display of masks a robot could choose from to obtain a semblance of humanity and hence become something or someone to trust
Going further still, the disturbingly close to real “Repräsentantinnen” by Louisa Clement is a robotised “communication doll” built using the artist’s image. The sculpture’s eyes lock onto those of the viewer and move left and right, holding the gaze steady. It is deeply unnerving, as is the rubber skin and hard hair. An empty chair is next to her, inviting visitors to join her. A few do. Most in the room laughed nervously, trying to dispel their discomfort. On the wall is a photo, “Attachment disorder”, of the robot effigy with a real baby. Is the disorder the doll’s attachment to the baby or the baby’s attachment to the doll? Is this a possible future?
The installation that intrigued me (and others, judging by how long they sat there) was a double installation titled “SocialSim” by Hito Steyerl. There was a blackened room with policemen and people projected onto the walls. They would suddenly dance, and dozens of bright lines of colour would stream from shoulders, elbows, and hands, like straight garish techno rainbows. What is this future? People dressed like cops and policemen, with artificial faces, too. It looked like an antagonistic relationship until they danced, and even then, the tension was strong. I took the police to be future-generation robots and humanity protecting itself in body armour and helmets. But instead of fighting, they are forced to dance. It didn’t look a pleasure, but an imposed reality, to keep them from fighting. A forced social cohabitation.
In the room behind was a screen, giving additional insights into the world of these people and police. The spaces and places it showed morphed as if the AI had been on a magic-mushroom-induced trip. This was intriguing, but the element that rested in my mind was a high-speed documentary talking about how the future AI self-evolved, trial by trial, in accelerated evolution, coming ever closer to what was wanted, a type of human. The phrase “after 10000 generations, something happened” stuck. AI can run through this in minutes.
In comparison, it “took” humanity 300,000 years to clock up 20,000 generations. But the phrase made me ask – what happened in the simulation that looked like a future documentary of history still waiting to happen to us? Did AI finally create a replacement for us? Nowadays, IT experts talk about us approaching the “singularity” in seven years – where AI is better than us at everything. What then becomes of us? Will we be redundant? And, while hotly debated: will this be the moment when AI crosses a tipping point, becomes conscious, and humankind loses its position at the top of the power pyramid?
No one can predict the future with any accuracy, but artists chart these unknown territories for us. What is clear is that there will be innumerable changes, shifts in how society adapts or fails to. It is easily worth the hour or two exploring the concerns of these artists (and the other five artists in the exhibition), their questions and their answers. It is up to us whether the future is a dystopian nightmare many fear or an opportunity for a strange but possible cohabitation and collaboration.
The thought-provoking exhibition, Shift, is on until 21 May 2023. Finally, you may be wondering whether this article was written by the troubling ChatGPT. So far, this human has resisted that temptation.