Artist Series Three: Pattern Recognition, Interview with Martin Zeilinger

This summer I came across an exhibition at InterAccess Toronto, titled Pattern Recognition featuring the works of five artists based in the UK, Canada, Italy and the US, who used emerging technologies to engage with pressing digital issues. These included: the commodification of cyberspace, pervasive surveillance, artificial intelligence, and automation. I was curious to see what questions these artists were raising about contemporary digital culture and how their installations would generate a fresh perspective on these complex topics.

As I entered the gallery, the sound of Jordan Shaw’s piece, “Habitual Instinct,” caught my attention. An array of wall-mounted mechanical cameras with moving heads spanned one of the gallery walls. The googly-eyed cameras sometimes moved in unison, sometimes on their own, turning the gaze back onto gallery visitors. The cameras had an anthropomorphic quality and sounded like mechanized cicadas. It seemed that the cameras were capturing data about the space of the gallery, although how the information was being used, stored, and interpreted was unclear. A screen with a cloud of floating white points above the cameras represented a cluster of collected data. The data presented itself in real time within the gallery space, although the link between the visitor’s actions and the changing data simulation was vague. Seeking clarification, I spoke to Jordan about the piece and he explained that his interest in how we interact with autonomous systems as well as how digital representations change our sense of self. While machines quietly monitor, scan, and interpret our movements, Shaw’s work brought this everyday occurrence into a dramatic light. Additionally, the never-ending scanning and documentation of the mass of mechanized eyes was unsettling.

UK artist Henry Driver’s work entitled “Simulate to Sell,” which involved video and an interactive game, offered a contemplative response to the hyper-commodification of the Internet. Two wall-mounted monitors hung side-by-side, one screen displaying a Shutterstock video simulation of the 9/11 attacks being played on a loop, the other featuring a nocturne world that visitors could navigate using a controller. The piece examining the monetization of tragedy showed how these images circulate on the internet.

To quote Driver:

“The simulation which is presented is no longer an image of remembrance but an image of digital commercialism. I believe this to be a shocking example of the pressing contemporary issues with the transference and selling of data which is ingrained within our digital society. Not only is our personal information hoarded, distributed and sold for advertising through social media and tracking cookies, but tragic society changing events such as 9/11 are simulated, distributed and sold too.”

Driver’s piece responded to this by creating an interactive 3D space created from simulated 9/11 stock photography. While the 9/11 images filled the virtual space, its abstract nature pointed to the fluidity and malleability of digital images, meaning-making, and truth. Driver transformed this virtual reality beyond recognition, yet it felt much more connected to tragedy. As a melancholic meditative space for reflection, it contrasted itself with the fast, cheap, ever-looping Shutterstock images. Beyond the specific event, this work raised questions about how the Internet monetizes our own images and experiences.

Another artist, Samantha Fickel, contributed a kinetic sculpture, which involved a flat screen monitor lying on the floor with a strong light above it, which generated heat and a burning effect on the screen, asking viewers to consider what it meant for machines to sense and react to their environment. This sculpture, however, examined emerging patterns that physical interactions between hardware components cause. The blistering screen reminded the viewer of the sensitivity and materiality of our digital objects with the screen appearing as a skin-like membrane. On her website, Fickel described her interest in the interaction between physical and digital worlds, commenting that the line between these has become harder to see, “as we incorporate technology deeper into our daily lives… My installations question what it means to live in a world where our digital lives are seamlessly interwoven into our everyday realities.”  The posture of the screen resembled an injured body with a painful heat-inflicted wound, the position of the light hanging above it reminiscent of an operating table.

 

Next, a small darkened room featured a video work entitled “Watching Blade Runner” by Vancouver-based artist Ben Bogart. The piece attempted to show a view of the world through the eyes of an artificial intelligence being. To do this, Bogart processed a film, Blade Runner, (1982) to see what a cinematic work looked like after he digitally processed it. This is significant as algorithms filter so much of our social reality. The effect of Bogart’s piece was harsh and alien, the images and voices coming across as fragmented.

Finally, I looked at a virtual reality piece by Italian artist Molleindustria entitled “A Short History of the Gaze,” which explored the relationship between the gaze and violence.

To quote Molleindustria:

“From the evolution of sight in a pre-Cambrian sea creature to the dominance display of a primate, from a landscape of billboards begging for attention to an infinite panopticon, the player traverses and affects the virtual scenes by simply looking (or not looking) at things.”

The work challenges our relationship to mediated ways of seeing. It also forced the viewer to acknowledge that to witness events as they unfold is a choice—to look or to look away. The piece transported me into a series of different environments. Here, I engaged with the space by fixing my gaze on objects that allowed me to move through levels into different virtual worlds. For example, in one of the scenes set within an elevator, by looking at the people in the space, my gaze removed their clothes. In another scene, my gaze “killed” unknowing humans. I found myself executing characters in a detached way, which reminded me of the state of drone warfare where people can be killed based on metadata collected about them.

I found all of the works in this show to be thought-provoking and evocative, bringing about emotional and contemplative approaches to problems of technological mediation. It raised questions such as: what does it mean to see like a machine? How do artificial intelligences perceive their surroundings and make sense of narratives about AI? Is the social and political meaning of images lost when such images are simulated and commodified?

I’d like to conclude with some further questions for Digital Tattoo visitors: how do these art works relate to patterns you observe in your own digital experiences? Do you feel culpable, and responsible for what you view and share on the internet? Are you concerned with how your movements are turned into data points and analyzed by your smart phone? Are you worried about the future of AI and how machines perceive the world? We’d be happy to hear any comments or reflections you may have.

 

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