The Curator’s Corner: Claudia Schnugg
Explorations of AI Art — Episode 15
[This interview has been previously published on Cueva Gallery’s blog on March 30, 2020]
“It is not about Artificial Intelligence replacing the creative process, a creative person, the artist, nor collaboration. It is adding up to the creative setting, adding new input and tools.” — Claudia Schnugg
In recent years the intertwining of art and technology has become more complex and articulated. The latest developments in Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI) have also found application in the artistic field, contributing to the creation of an avant-garde that is shaking the art world in different ways and creating new aesthetics and narratives. Art based on generative techniques and AI is contributing to the diffusion of technological knowledge, but also shifting the attention to the possible implications that technology can have in the context of our existence. There are many questions about the concept of creativity and imagination, and the possible role of the artist who incorporates these techniques, investigating further the space of interaction between man and machine.
In the past similar questions have also been asked about art and science. Indeed, the work developed in the dialectical relationship between these two fields has proven to provide important impulses in arts, science and technology, creating access to scientific and technological developments as well as to contemporary art.
In a world where interdisciplinary and flexibility seem to be more and more vital to face challenges, not only cultural institutions but also organizations are getting involved in artistic interventions.
Since the discussion concerning art and technology is extremely wide-ranging, I felt the importance of having the point of view of a curator. That’s why I spoke to Dr. Claudia Schnugg who is an independent curator and researcher in the field of art and science, and producer of artscience projects at the intersection of art with science, technology, business, and society. As advocate of artscience collaboration she has been the catalyst for numerous artscience projects. After her doctoral dissertation she was assistant professor at JKU in Linz, and visiting researcher in Copenhagen, Los Angeles and at ESO, Chile. She headed the Ars Electronica Residency Network and was first Artistic Director of Science Gallery Venice. Her most recent book is Creating ArtScience Collaboration (2019).
In our conversation we have addressed some of the points presented above, and discussed much more, including her last project that investigates algorithmic overdependence. I am glad to share here our chat.
Beth: Art and Science are opening new fields together, bringing to the attention of the public new topics of discussion. Do you think this is happening also with Art and Artificial Intelligence?
Claudia: Yes. Especially in the last two years the field of Art and Artificial Intelligence has been drawing a lot of attention of the public to diverse dimensions in the Art world and within the field of Artificial Intelligence. First of all, artists employing the newest developments in Artificial Intelligence and specific applications like Machine Learning, Deep Learning in their artistic practice created a lot of attention to the most recently developed technical possibilities. DeepDream and its artistic exploration is probably one of the most widely-known examples. Artists applying generative models in their work, contribute to a discussion and wider understanding of what these algorithms can do — and what they can’t. Second, the attention these artworks are giving to the developments in AI go beyond a first exploration of what AI can do. Artworks exploring applications of AI or algorithmic systems in daily life can create experiential experiences, communicate what these developments mean for human life. Thereby, they can create awareness and bring important discussions to the surface of what society and culture actually wants and needs from such applications. This also implies exploring ethical questions and problems that can arise from dependencies on Artificial Intelligence or unethical applications. Third, artworks generated by AI or by artists employing AI tools, open discussions around creativity. Who is creative, can a machine be creative, who is the author of the resulting work if such an algorithm is applied in the process or even “responsible” from a certain point in time. Looking at it from an artscience collaboration perspective, this is an interesting question that surfaces important questions scientists and the Art world have been dealing with even before the rise of Art and Artificial Intelligence. What is the role of the medium? Who is creative? What is the creative process? How does the artistic process employ new media? But also how are generative and interactive artworks received by the public? And what means reproducibility? Especially within the art market this is an important question, which surfaces in the discussion about highly priced AI generated artworks. Fourth, artists working with Artificial Intelligence are also at the forefront of experimenting how collaborative systems between humans and Artificial Intelligence can work. What are the implications for social life? How do we feel and what do we need in such interactions or collaborative processes? These discussions are relevant for future development of applications, from creating new work situations to private life.
Beth: Can you highlight some examples?
Claudia: Artificial Intelligence is an important topic that has been recently dominant in news and economic discussions. Although we do have some smaller communities in art and science and in digital art that focused on presenting exhibitions and artwork discussing these developments in the last decades, only most recently they have started to reach bigger audiences. For example, in 2017 the Ars Electronica festival focused on Artificial Intelligence and last year they re-designed their museum exhibition space with a major focus on exploring art and science around Artificial Intelligence. Thus, they are able to bring education and discussion to a wider audience group. But beyond that, even major arts institutions see the importance of bringing this discussion to their premises. For example, at the moment there’s Neurons, the simulated intelligences exhibition at Centre Pompidou that explores neural networks also by referring to playfulness in media art, cybernetics and the role of algorithms and decision trees in art and science. This suddenly brings a field — an artistic field — to a wide audience that has not been shown in that dimension before.
An example of an earlier exploration of Artificial Intelligence through interactive art installations is another wonderful example for artscience explorations bringing experiential knowledge on Artificial Intelligence to a wide audience: Olafur Eliasson and Luc Steels’ artistic explorations of Luc Steels’ Talking Heads Experiment, a scientific investigation into the origins of language and meaning and Artificial Intelligence conducted in the years 1999–2001, conversations about learning machines and complexity of languages have been brought in touch with a broader audience. The Talking Heads Experiment took place in gallery spaces and at major art events, linking humans with robotic agents, creating an exploratory experience for the audience and valuable insights for the scientists, giving new directions.
In collaboration with the artist Olafur Eliasson, the artwork Look into the Box (2002) was created, taking up basic ideas and learning form the Talking Heads Experiment focusing on color and language games between human and artificial agents. This artwork has been updated regularly so that it also could be shown in the last few years in shows on Artificial Intelligence and/in Art, supporting the ongoing discussion about the developments in the field.
An example of a project that pushes the discussion about the effects of applications of Artificial Intelligence in daily routines and work is my recent exploration called Digitized with computer scientist Christian Stary. This exploration aims to create an experience of Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things, leading to an Internet of Behavior. The idea of this installation (in development) is to create an environment that by simple behavior of the individual entering the installation (having the goal to go through a tunnel) is limiting their space for future behavior. The idea is to create an experience of Algorithmic Overdependence — a problem that can occur for anyone employing systems based on learning algorithms connecting data on previous behavior: due to accumulated knowledge in artificial systems, the choices for your future behavior get limited. But these systems can be biased or not understand the full complexity of a situation you are in. This can be true for finding information, just as for being able to get a low rate at an insurance company.
Examples for discussions around who is creative, who is the artist, and what does it mean for galleries and the art market can be found around the developments after the presentation of DeepDream, the first AI artworks sold at auctions for considerable prices.
A wonderful example for the exploration of the human collaborating with Artificial Intelligence and robotic systems is the work of Sougwen Chung. In her process of working with one or numerous robotic systems, she is exploring human-robot-interaction with a focus on the human aspects of such a collaboration. Can we keep our human qualities of the outcome or do we adjust to mechanic aesthetic? What are the gestures we use, the embodied knowledge we have in our ways of interacting with others and how do we get aware of how we change our behavior through interaction with these systems? What are the human aspects of such a collaboration?
Beth: How do you think is the equation between creativity and AI?
Claudia: This is a tough one. I am not sure if I can give you an equation. Looking at all these wonderful artists emerging in the field of Art and Artificial Intelligence, employing the opportunities that these new tools and media give them at hands, I think Artificial Intelligence is stimulating creativity and opening up new fields. I really think it is about how to engage, how to interact, and reflecting on the manifold contributions Artificial Intelligence can give to artistic practice and the artwork itself. It is not about Artificial Intelligence replacing the creative process, a creative person, the artist, nor collaboration. It is adding up to the creative setting, adding new input and tools.
Beth: In a previous interview, you said that “Media Art and Art and Science are evolving from a side scene to a more central part of contemporary art. They still need to be contextualized into art history.” Do you think this is going to happen soon, especially considering that a part of the artists involved into digital art are moving towards decentralization?
Claudia: Of course, it goes into many directions, and thus it is not easy to predict. What can be seen is that next to the presence of technological developments in the news, also the festivals and art spaces focusing on digital media art and art and science get increased attention. Of course, this also plays a role that art institutions like the Centre Pompidou show this kind of work as they are doing now. Also in California some more essential funding and exhibitions are planned to present more work on art and science. At the same time, the 2019 Biennale di Venezia had major works from digital media artists like Ryoji Ikeda and on Artificial Intelligence, like Hito Steyerl’s work. Similarly, last year’s Triennale in Milan showed work from artists in the realm of art and science. This adds some weight to this artistic field and practice.
Of course, innovation is a huge topic which has led to a development that scholars, management and policy makers have looked at arts as some kind of role model for creativity, innovation and future trends, which also resulted in more funding and a bigger stage for digital art and art and science. Recently I’ve visited the symposium on art-science residency methodologies as a recap on the last three years of the Vertigo STARTS residencies, an opportunity funded by the European Commission inviting over 45 artists into science and tech projects. There somebody in the audience raised an important question in our panel discussion: what is the relevance of all this to the artistic community? The conference participant was asking for relevance beyond giving access to artists to cutting-edge science and technology, or creating artwork based on this experience, which is talking to the public about scientific and technological developments, but not having an intense discussion with the contemporary art scene. This is an important question, also in context of your question.
Looking at early work in art and technology as well as art and science in the 1960s it was difficult for the artists, scientists and engineers to show their work to the public, difficult to contextualize it in the artistic and scientific worlds. Of course, there were seminal exhibitions, but showing work coming out of laboratories or based on engineering was by far not easy. Retrospectively, the work developed back then provided important impulses in arts, science and technology and seminal works were later developed. Art historians have been reflecting on this increasingly in the last 10–20 years. They are also looking at the impact the work had and create connections in wider contexts and academics from other disciplines like history of science contribute to the overall exploration, too. Nevertheless, media art always posed a lot of practical problems to galleries and museums, so it has been neglected. At the same time, there is a lot of research and work going on right now in terms of archiving, maintaining and showing these works, and a lot of research by art historians, theorists, and media art archive specialists is going on right now. Also because new media and the possibilities of digital media become relevant to more traditional museums, too. So these conditions could change soon allowing for a boarder discussion and inclusion.
Moreover, although media art and art and science are moving decentralization, digital media also allows for more decentralized discussion and access points. Thus, it allows for new ways to engage with art and create new platforms for exchange.
Finally, I think the field of media art and art and science could open new spaces and access points for a broader audience to dare to engage with contemporary art. A wide public often feels intimidated by contemporary art. Publishing and discussing work based on art and science with new audience groups does not only create access to scientific and technological developments, allowing for critical reflection, but also can create access points for getting in touch with contemporary art.
Beth: Artists and Scientists often need a curator/mediator to help them to bring out a fruitful dialogue for both sides. How do you think the figure of the curator will evolve in the field of digital art, considering the fact that the artists are taking more and more control over their work and started curating it?
Claudia: This figure is an important glue, creates connections, builds up trust between individuals from different backgrounds, can help — especially in the beginning — to translate and find a common language (we often say the same words and mean something completely different, especially when we do have different cultural or disciplinary backgrounds), helps the artist and scientist to focus on their joint research/project development by navigating organizational structures for and with them. This person is also important because they should not take sides in terms of representing only the artistic, only the scientific, or only the organizational interests, but can create a balance between them. Often these collaborations are embedded in organizations, organizations fund them, or one of the two collaborating partners is funded by an organization, and thus organizations can have influence, too. The curator/mediator can help to elaborate on all positions to find a common ground. And although artists and scientists know very well what they do and have clear visions, sometimes it is good to have a person guiding a process, asking questions of relevance or challenging ideas. And — as curators often do — they can help to create connections to make the work visible, present it in exhibitions, connect to ongoing public discussions and take it forward after a first prototype or outcome is created.
Beth: From STEM to STEAM: the last years have registered an increase of interest for artistic interventions from management and organizational studies. Where is this going to lead?
Claudia: Research into artistic interventions in organizations grew in the last 20 years, although already in 1996 management scholars got interested in aesthetic dimensions of organizations. In the early 1990s Xerox had their seminal artist-in-residence program called PAIR at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC Artist-in-Residence), Experiments in Art and Technology in the 1960s at AT&T Bell Labs or Peter Behrens as artistic advisor of AEG from 1907 onward.
There is a lot of discussion around the possible impact of such artistic interventions — can they contribute to product development, education or restructuring processes? — , instrumentation of the arts for business — Where is the art? Is it art or just helping out with a creative process? -, and opportunities to create fundamental change — in organizations or even more basic economic environments like digital communities. Many artistic interventions in corporations right now are focusing on HR and personal development, supporting change processes, or impacting research and development. They are often supported by consultants and the management has to stand behind them so that they can be impactful. These artistic interventions seem to be very embedded in typical organizational structures and organizational development mechanisms. The more daring ones decide to create artist-in-residence programs with high aims and often little control, but interesting goals. There’s the new Experiments in Art and Technology at Nokia Bell Labs, then Fraunhofer MEVIS has this initiative adding an artist-in-residence to educational workshops, expanding from STEM to STEAM, the Creative Residency at Ginkgo Bioworks gives a lot of freedom to the artist and is very interesting as it acknowledges financially the artist like a scientist, Bosch has the program Platform 12 in collaboration with Akademie Schloss Solitude as part of their innovation initiatives. There are lots of interesting developments to be seen there.
Nevertheless, I think there is an opportunity to go even beyond that. Right now we see the organizations and politics confronted with far-reaching consequences of the climate crisis to their operational and strategic development, questioning some basic assumptions of business and economics. At the same time, we are confronted with the impact of trying to delaying the impact of the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak in order to help the health systems to cope with the amount of affected individuals without breaking down. This also affects the systems we are living in and organizations have to cope with it. For example, trend forecaster Li Edelkoort hopes that there will be a blank page for a new beginning, re-inventing new strategies and systems after that. Bringing together the knowledge from artistic and science will be important to find future strategies for resilient systems that can cope with the rapidly changing world — and hopefully protecting our planet, too. At the same time, looking at technological developments, skills developed in engaging with art and humanities will also be important for future workforce, so from STEM to STEAM and including the learning from humanities will be essential in education to generate skills like critical thinking, communication, or interdisciplinary collaboration.
This conversation has been really interesting to me as I feel I gained new points of view about the value of the interweaving of art and technology. Thank you Dr. Schnugg for this incredibly insightful chat!∎
Resources and References
About the author: Beth Jochim is the Creative AI Lead at Libre AI, and Director and Co-Founder at Cueva Gallery. She works at the intersection of technology and arts. She is actively involved in different activities that aim to democratize the field of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, bringing the benefits of AI/ML to a larger audience. Connect whit Beth in LinkedIn or Twitter.