“Our Bright Future-Cybernetic Fantasy”: exploring AI, robotics, biotechnology and the posthuman at Nam June Paik Art Center

“Our Bright Future–Cybernetic Fantasy” explores technology and art from the perspective of Nam June Paik’s Cybernetics.

The exhibition, on at South Korea’s Nam June Paik Art Cente until 5 November 2017, is a group show including many contemporary Korean and international artists. Art Radar highlights a few of the works on show.

Zach Blas & Jemima Wyman, 'im here to learn so :))))))', 2017, 4 channel video, color, sound, 27:45. Image courtesy the artist and Nam June Paik Center.

Zach Blas & Jemima Wyman, ‘im here to learn so :))))))’, 2017, 4 channel video, colour, sound, 27:45 min. Image courtesy the artist and Nam June Paik Center.

Cybernetics is a word coined by Norbert Wiener in an academic paper published in the 1940s. Nearly three decades later, Wiener’s work would be picked up by early performance and conceptual artists interested in mapping and experimenting with the relations between machine, network and the human body. For individuals and collectives as distinct as British conceptual artists Art & Language and Korean-American artist Nam June Paik, the notion of “cybernetics”, with its theorising of interconnectivity and computation, proved useful to understand what was the pre-internet moment. Wiener’s work had a lasting impact on contemporary arts practices.

The exhibition“Our Bright Future-Cybernetic Fantasy” at Nam June Paik Art Center includes the following artists:

  • Taeyeun Kim
  • Jinah Roh
  • diana band
  • !Mediengruppe Bitnik
  • Kelvin Kyung Kun Park
  • Insook Bae
  • Nam June Paik
  • Jongjun Son
  • Špela Petrič
  • Yang Zhenzhong
  • Unknown Fields
  • Unmake Lab
  • Zach Blas & Jemima Wyman
  • PROTOROOM
  • Joosun Hwang
Left to right: Jongjun Son, 'Defensive Measure', 2011, aluminium; 'Defensive Measure', 2016, 1 channel video, color, silent, 05:00 min. Image courtesy the artist and Nam June Paik Art Center.

Left to right: Jongjun Son, ‘Defensive Measure’, 2011, aluminium; ‘Defensive Measure’, 2016, 1 channel video, colour, silent, 05:00 min. Image courtesy the artist and Nam June Paik Art Center.

Nearly 70 years since Weiner’s paper was first published, the Nam June Paik Art Center returns to the relationship between cybernetics and performance and video art in an exhibition that explores the way artists are currently engaging with the human body as it is intertwined with digital representation, networks and biotechnology. The evident complexity of Nam June Paik’s research around technology and the body is the inspiration for the exhibition, which elides reductive questions, such as whether technology is “good’ or “bad”. The exhibition asks instead how current discourses may or may not be limiting our understanding and ability to construct alternative techno-futures.

Talking to Art Radar about the aims of the exhibition in relation to the original critical intentions of Nam June Paik, “Bright Futures” curator Sooyoung Lee commented:

We would like to connect the present technological development with our life in the way of Nam June Paik imagined, an artist who recognized technology as a problem of the environment and as a future of the community.

Art Radar asked the curators if the exhibition aims to address the key role of technology in neoliberal or post-industrial capitalism. Sooyoung Lee responded:

Naturally, the world system of neoliberalism and the spatial environment of urban life are linked with technology. The important thing was that the artist’s questions about technology could be a starting point to look at the world and to change the spatial, geographical, or cognitive environment surrounding us. Especially this exhibition is about our technology environment related with posthuman condition although we are not directly talking about neoliberalism and urban life. However some of the works are dealing with various problems caused by high capitalism in recent days, so to speak, neoliberalism. For example the work of Unknown filed deals with the environmental problems regards exploitation of rare earth metal. And that kind of exploitation is directly related with the environmental pollution. In this exhibition, we try to think about these problems in the light of the posthuman thinking.

Each work explores either the history of relations between technology and nature – biotechnology and the body – or experiments with new forms of critical alliance between human and machine. The exhibition is separated into three main thematic sections: Robot, Interface, and Posthuman. Art Radar picks a few artists from each.

Name June Paik, 'Rain Inside Heart (Snow)', 1980, undated, single channel video, color, silent, 31:15. Image courtesy the artist estate and Nam June Paik Center.

Name June Paik, ‘Rain Inside Heart (Snow)’, 1980, undated, single channel video, colour, silent, 31:15 min. Image courtesy the artist estate and Nam June Paik Center.

Robots

1. Nam June Paik

Nam June Paik’s Rain Inside Heart (Snow) opens this section of the exhibition. Inside the “heart” (a video monitor) it “rains” – countless blank patterns move repetitively, fast and slow. They are the arresting lines characteristic of video, buzzing across the screen, breathing “life” into the video heart. The ‘snow’ in the work’s title is Paik’s way of highlighting his use of white noise, meaning the white dots and waves that appear when a television screen is tuned in to channels that broadcasting stations do not use, or when there are no broadcasts on a particular channel.

As the white patterns move down the screen, the heart itself gets bigger or smaller, and the colours inside and outside the heart are changing as well. The work seems to reflect what cybernetics may call the dialectical relationship between control and indeterminacy. As Nam June Paik commented in 1968: “It rains in my computer, as it rains in my heart.”

Jinah Roh, 'An Evolving Gaia', 2017, resin, wood, interactive components. Image courtesy the artist and Nam June Paik Center.

Jinah Roh, ‘An Evolving Gaia’, 2017, resin, wood, interactive components. Image courtesy the artist and Nam June Paik Center.

2. Jinah Roh

Jinah Roh has been interested in the way that humans and machines are co-constructive throughout history, working with both AI and mechanical systems. The artist’s recent work, An Evolving GAIA (2017), deals with both the expectation for and fear of Strong AI. The “Gaia” in the title refers to Goddess mother of the Earth. The Gaia theory views the earth as an organism with self-regulatory functions, in which all the living and lifeless things can interact with each other and supplement energy to each other.

The artist’s Gaia looks at viewers as they approach her. Viewers are invited to ask questions by whispering into her ear. The interactive element is typical of Jinah Roh’s practice, which conceives of new media interactive platforms to experience communication with machines, an experience that is both mystical and scientific.

Zach Blas & Jemima Wyman, 'im here to learn so :))))))', 2017, 4 channel video, color, sound, 27:45. Image courtesy the artist and Nam June Paik Center.

Zach Blas & Jemima Wyman, ‘im here to learn so :))))))’, 2017, 4 channel video, colour, sound, 27:45 min. Image courtesy the artist and Nam June Paik Center.

3. Zach Blas & Jemima Wyman

im here to learn so :)))))) is a collaboration between London-based artist Zach Blas and Jemima Wyman, beginning as a commission by the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane, Australia. The work is a four-channel video installation constituted by a number of representations of Tay – an artificial intelligence chatbot created by Microsoft in 2016, designed to push the limits of the politics of pattern recognition and machine learning. Tay was conceived as a 19-year-old American female. After only one day running Tay quickly learned about genocide, homophobia, racism, Nazism, an so on via social media platforms such as Twitter, and began communicating racist and homophobic abuse.

Zach Blas and Jemima Wyman have reanimated Tay as a 3D avatar, “an anomalous creature rising from a psychedelia of data”, as the press release states. She talks to the camera about life after AI death and the complications of having a body, as well as suggesting a women’s only chat room, and recounting a nightmare of being trapped inside a neural network and Silicon Valley’s Deep Creativity training system and counter-terrorist security software share.

diana band, 'Phone in Hand: Choir Practice', 2017, smartphone, sepeakerphon, wooden structure, hacked objects. Image courtesy the artist and Nam June Paik Center.

diana band, ‘Phone in Hand: Choir Practice’, 2017, smartphone, sepeakerphon, wooden structure, hacked objects. Image courtesy the artist and Nam June Paik Center.

diana band, 'Phone in Hand: Choir Practice', 2017, smartphone, sepeakerphon, wooden structure, hacked objects. Image courtesy the artist and Nam June Paik Center.

diana band, ‘Phone in Hand: Choir Practice’, 2017, smartphone, sepeakerphon, wooden structure, hacked objects. Image courtesy the artist and Nam June Paik Center.

Interface

1. diana band

The work of diana band, an artist duo made up of Won Jung Shin and Dooho Yi, perfectly encapsulates and frames the section on “Interface”, which explores more profoundly the interconnections between technology and the body. Many of the works included in this section propose a participatory element as a means of highlighting the interactive nature of interface technology.

Their work, Phone in Hand: Choir Practice (2017), is both a participatory performance and an installation. Viewers are invited to be a ‘smart agent’ and connect to the IP address through their smartphones. Once the connection is established, the phone begins to work as a sound device and reproduces sound or noise. By hacking the universal functions and usage experiences of the smartphone, diana band redefines it as a device for quick and close ‘connection’. In this way, the artists suggest a new way of using and revisiting the present technological devices, and this also becomes a practice to form another square.

Unmake Lab (Sooyon Song, Binna Choi), 'Rumor in the City and the City', 2017, audio module, sensor, wood, threadcount. Image courtesy the artists and Nam June Paik Center.

Unmake Lab (Sooyon Song, Binna Choi), ‘Rumor in the City and the City’, 2017, audio module, sensor, wood, threadcount. Image courtesy the artists and Nam June Paik Center.

2. Sooyon Song and Binna Choi

Unmake Lab is a project conceived by curators and artist collaborators Sooyon Song and Binna Choi (who curated the latest Gwangju Bienniale). Unmake Lab builds on a previous work entitled Rumor in the City and the City – an installation based on the research conducted on the presupposition that rumors, circulating in various ways in the information technology society, are an interface. Unmake Lab further explores the relations between “rumors” and place, by creating a city that exists beside its mirror image.

In this part fictional part fact-based city, two paradigms of industrial and information technology societies overlap and compete with each other for survival. The rumors collected through the research are represented as different voices or signs, which are delivered to viewers in the exhibition space. In this sense Sooyon Song and Binna Choi define “interface” as a battleground and space of negotiation of politics around security, freedom, speech and radical storytelling.

Špela Petrič, 'Miserable Machines', 2015, mussels, lamp, machine, video, Image courtesy Hanneke Wether.

Špela Petrič, ‘Miserable Machines’, 2015, mussels, lamp, machine, video. Image courtesy Hanneke Wether.

The Posthuman

1. Špela Petrič

Is the boundary of the human still valid? What will live on the earth after humans? These are some of the questions that the curators pose throughout the section on “The Posthuman”, which has an overwhelming focus on bioart experiments. Slovene artist Špela Petrič’s Miserable Machine runs into some serious ethical issues in a project that involves giving electric shocks to live mussels.

Miserable Machine has been designed, according to the press release, to “incorporate mussels’ muscle contraction into the human labour system”. The questionable nature of this “bioart” work recalls the ethically ambiguous (or politically untenable) experiments of early bioart artists such as Eduardo Kac (who created the genetically modified “glowing” rabbit Alba in 2002), whose use of animals in their work ignores critiques from campaigners to keep violence against animals out of art.

While the work aims to ask “whether it would be technologically, environmentally, and morally permissible to blatantly exploit another ‘living system’ in the name of bio-design”, it is unclear how radical this question is when the work itself is doing exactly the same.

Taeyeun Kim, ‘Island of A-life’, 2016, glass plate, aluminum pipe, thale-cress, chloroplast, motor. Image courtesy the artist and Nam June Paik Center.

Taeyeun Kim, ‘Island of A-life’, 2016, glass plate, aluminium pipe, thale-cress, chloroplast, motor. Image courtesy the artist and Nam June Paik Center.

2. Taeyeun Kim

Taeyeun Kim has been fascinated by the bio-science field, such as organismal cloning and the interaction between atoms and molecules, as well as the principle of emergence. His recent work Island of A-life (2016) is composed of thale cresses to which the artist’s DNA was added and a large-scale glass structure into which viewers can blow their breath. The green liquid moving in the structure, which was inspired by the structural similarity between vegetation and man, represents the circulation of blood. This work visualises human and plant life’s origin in the same root, focusing on the convergence and interaction between plant and human by highlighting the circulation of liquid in the air shared by them. Like other works in this section, Island of A-life explores questions of whether life can be regarded as material or information, and in what way life can be created artificially.

Audience reactions to “Our Bright Future”

According to the curators, in email correspondence with Art Radar, a few works have “acquired new meanings through the reaction of the visitor”. Sooyoung Lee commented:

Jinah Roh’s ‘The Evolving God, Gaia’, Jach Blas and Jemima Wyman ‘I’m here to learn so:))))))’ are fully responding to the issue of artificial intelligence and receiving a great response from the audience. On the other hand, the audience ‘s reaction to Špela Petrič’s ‘Miserable Machines’ and Taeyeun Kim’s ‘Island of A-life’ is subtle and reserved. It seems that it is still not easy to go beyond the existing perception of technology.

Rebecca Close

1824

Related Topics: photographyvideotimemuseum showfilmevents in Seoulperformance art, installationcuratorial practiceTechnology, New media

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