Stories of futures to code and decode

Looming above our heads is the spectre of what the prominent historian of the future Yuval Noah Harari calls the “useless class”. According to his theory, “intelligent” machines and advances in biotechnology could soon lead to an underclass of humans that are too slow, too unreliable and not profitable enough (if at all), and thus obsolete. The idea of humans on the scrapheap still falls within the realm of dystopia and the jury is still out on the impact artificial intelligence will have on our social lives, careers and even relationships. Yet the fact remains that our presumption of cognitive superiority is being chipped away at by the adoption of AI in a progress-obsessed society that worships at the altar of technological solutionism. The time has come to reassess humanity’s place and role on the planet, to speculate and imagine new possibilities, if we are to secure our children’s future in a world beset by the threat of a takeover by AI machines and the increasingly unpredictable effects of climate change.

Why media art?

What roles can media art play both in how we understand technology and envision its place in future scenarios? What is the purpose served by a digital creation that casts a critical, opinionated eye on technology? Who is thinking about the technology as they wield it? Who is looking for an audience outside of contemporary art fairs?

Artists’ work offers more than mere aesthetic pleasures. It can unlock the ideas of scientific and technical processes that sometimes appear impenetrable, while also revealing social and environmental aspects that merit greater discussion. Take Bittercoin, an old calculator hacked by its creators, Martín Nadal and César Escudero Andaluz, to connect to the blockchain and validate bitcoin transactions. The calculations performed are printed on paper tape that piles up unremittingly around the machine, providing tangible evidence of the computations required and the natural resources wasted in the process . Another example is the work of Michael Mandiberg, who recreated the 1936 comedy Modern Times shot by shot. He did so by hiring nearly 200 creatives on gig platforms to each act out and shoot a few seconds of Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece. When spliced together, the shots form a spectacle that is funny at times but always chaotic and tragic, much like the thankless, poorly paid chores offered to workers on US-based microtask platforms.

Bittercoin © Martín Nadal and César Escudero Andaluz

Art can also help us picture the future, to look beyond the expected benefits of an advance in science or technology and contemplate the potential economic, political, cultural and ethical impacts that such a development could have on society. Artists employ strategies to derive new meaning and tactics to win over or even confront audiences, so that we pause to reflect in a culture that no longer takes the time to consider the true reach of our societal choices or to debate what sort of future is desirable. One example that comes to mind is the famous 3D portraits of strangers that Heather Dewey-Hagborg produced using DNA samples taken from hair, nails, cigarette butts and chewing gum that the artist collected at random while walking in the streets of New York City. The strange masks that she crafts using this genetic material provide a better understanding of the limits of forensic DNA phenotyping and the potential consequences of government biological surveillance.

Stranger Visions © Heather Dewey-Hagborg

The power of art clearly resides in this political dimension. Although it is not always explicitly stated as such, a critically-minded artist’s mission is to stand up to the omnipotent actors of technological development. Artists warn us that it would be irresponsible to leave technology solely in the hands of those who develop, produce and sell it, by signalling potential abuses or pointing audiences to alternatives that are more attuned to social and environmental justice. This critical approach to current developments is increasingly reflected in concerns expressed by the public, many of whom feel more ‘used’ than ‘user’, malleable consumers more than empowered stakeholders. Art offers a window into potential means of breaking free from these asymmetrical relationships, taking back control of digital tools and co-constructing a social model liberated from the purely capitalist constructs of Silicon Valley. In fact, media art actors could almost be considered heirs to the Luddites, the English workers who broke the machinery of the Industrial Revolution in 1811 and 1812. They didn’t do so because they abhorred technology as such, but because they sought to curb the new manufacturing equipment’s negative consequences on individuals, communities and the environment.

In sum, artistic research helps familiarise the public with technology. This familiarisation involves adopting new vocabulary, gaining assurance that we have ability to act and the right to ask questions, to contest the idea that technology is a set of devices that we purchase but can’t scrutinise, which are coded but not decoded. In this way, media art serves as a conduit to the development of media literacy, enabling technology users to decipher underlying messages and dynamics that may appear opaque.

Journeys to hybrid lands

Each of the three works selected for the European project Les Voyages de Capitaine futur utilises these critical approaches in different ways, but all address topics that urgently need to be explored further.

Miranda Moss’s work puts forward new methods for interacting with digital systems. She elicits gestures and actions that are nuanced, delicate, patient and show greater respect for forms of equilibrium that are not immediately apparent to us. The enchanted garden she presents in The Timid Wilderness is inhabited by plants that are wary of humans – loud, graceless beings who lack consideration for any lifeforms other than their own. Perhaps these flowers have a better understanding than us of the disastrous effects that the western world’s folly on ecosystems.

The Timid Wilderness - Miranda Moss © Vinciane Lebrun-Verguethen

The most stunning aspect is how the artist reveals the magic of the natural world through the use of artificial intelligence, of course, but also via recovered materials and plastic, in particular. Plastic, most often disintegrated into tiny particles, now forms part of our ecosystems, whether we like it or not. We now find it everywhere: in sea ice, in the point in the ocean the farthest away from the land surface, in plankton and throughout the food chain. There are now more microplastics in the world’s seas than stars in the entire galaxy. Plastic has invaded ecosystems with such virulence that geologists have noticed the formation of plastiglomerates, a new type of rock comprising plastic, volcanic rock, beach sand, shells, debris and other fused hard materials. Miranda Moss has transformed this object of disdain into an eclectic Eden brimming with beauty and bioluminescence.

Meanwhile, Florian Dussopt mixed sounds recorded on trips to faraway lands with digital noises to create a universe where it is often hard to distinguish the organic from the synthetic, the natural from the artificial, the spontaneous from the carefully choreographed. The luxuriant appearance of this silicon jungle captures how our virtual actions are inextricably intertwined with the distinctly physical organisms and realities found in the world.

Sonic Jungle - Florian Dussopt © Vinciane Lebrun-Verguethen

In Edge of Chaos, Vasilija Abramovic, Ruairi Glynn and Bas Overvelde show us both a digital world emancipated from screens and a natural world forged by engineers. This nature – or supernature, as it were – is a source of inspiration for the construction of buildings, cities and other edifices that we have long limited to the most banal concrete materials. The trio of artists invite us to contemplate these architectural structures on the precipice of the predictable laws of the mathematical world and the often cofounding, utterly magnificent laws of the organic world.

Edge of Chaos - IAL & Studio Overvelde © Vinciane Lebrun-Verguethen

While The Timid Wilderness, Edge of Chaos and Sonic Jungle are very different from one another both aesthetically and conceptually, the three works all speak to the hybrid form of ecology that is emerging from the interaction between our natural environment and technology. Considered completely separate until very recently, these two spheres affect each other and form new entities endowed with unique qualities and physiological features.

The artists use silicon, plastic, sensors and responsive geometrical structures to call our attention to rapidly changing landscapes that are decidedly unlike those of the past century. There are new inhabitants: genetically modified plants, cloned trees, robots whose movements seem to follow biological laws, whales equipped with sensors and, more prosaically, farmed salmon fed specifically to meet our cultural conception of what constitutes an appetizing fish.

It is fascinating to observe the extent to which the disruptions caused by computer engineering and synthetic biology are rewriting our definition of corporeality and upending our understanding of intelligence. Rather than be alarmed by this sea change, we should welcome it as an opportunity for more conscientious co-existence with other lifeforms and types of intelligence – technology, plants, animals and combinations thereof.

That is clearly where digital artists’ works can help us understand the future of a homo that feels less and less sapiens, by offering interfaces and stimuli that provoke sensory reactions and emotional engagement, or bring new learning strategies and forms of intelligence to the fore.

A little empathy in a world of machines

Interactive art is often considered mere entertainment, with sounds, lights, colours and the chance to participate physically, in a laid-back setting. Yet it exercises a form of intelligence that warrants attention: emotional intelligence, which makes us more sensitive to our inside and outside world, and helps us understand how our own emotions affect us and those around us, to grasp what others are feeling.

Aurelia 1+Hz / proto viva generator - Robertina Sebjanic © Vinciane Lebrun-Verguethen

Sonic Jungle, Edge of Chaos and The Timid Wilderness serve as vast ‘interfaces’ that elicit empathy, the key ingredient in emotional intelligence. Social networks, which create polarised bubbles and filter out content, have blinkered our perspective on the world and nearly made us forget about the importance of this quality. By no means a minor faculty, emotional intelligence enables humans to connect with the emotions of their peers, to cooperate to survive, and to prosper as a species. If it were not for this essential trait, our ancient ancestors would never have helped each other ward off predators. Researchers would not be working tirelessly to develop cancer vaccines. The words of Édouard Glissant, the melodies of Billie Holiday and the vision of Francisco de Goya would not move us.

Our society currently faces global problems that we will not be able to solve without empathy. It is vital that we develop more interfaces (digital and otherwise) that foster this faculty and have the potential to broaden it to encompass other lifeforms as wide-ranging and singular as a humanoid, a cockroach, a daisy, or one of the microorganisms in our microbiota.

It was striking to hear the extent to which Jack Ma, when asked how we should educate our children in January 2018, spoke out in favour of initiatives that require less “knowledge-based” forms of intelligence than those traditionally taught in our schools . A former English lecturer who went on to co-found the e-commerce heavyweight Alibaba, Ma believes that the future lies in soft skills, namely the humanities and the applied arts. Rather than programming. Not because the latter lacks inherent value, but because we cannot compete with machines in areas where they are designed to dominate. According to Ma, we need to teach new generations to foster humanistic values, think independently, work as a team and care about others. In sum, what now appears to be paramount is our ability to be in tune with others and our own imagination.

Imaginations run wild

The imagination is the wellspring of every story, innovation and human experience. And artistic imagination, which feeds off speculation and experimental methods, has shaped a vision of technology and its uses that has played an active role in developing innovation and its adoption by society. While science-fiction literature and films have often been lauded for their ability to prophesise and influence advances in science and technology , media art has also heralded applications and instruments that now seem commonplace. These include projects such as the Art+Com collective’s Terravision installation, which allowed the public to navigate the world using satellite images a decade before the arrival of Google Earth. Or Blast Theory’s geolocated performances, which foreshadowed the astounding success of Pokémon Go back in 2001.

It is still too early to ascertain the prophetic qualities of the works produced for Les voyages de Capitaine futur. What is certain is that they express the need to measure progress by less anthropocentric standards. The works inspire us to dream of futures rooted in awareness of how our planet is assailed by human recklessness, but which still convey hope for co-evolution with all forms of life, both organic and synthetic.

This hope that shines through in the three installations is crucial to humanity’s ability to move forward in the right direction. Books by climatologists and the anxiety-inducing scenes shot by Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier and Edward Burtynsky raise the same questions about the future of our planet. Unfortunately, their work has failed to make a significant impact on our lifestyles. Raising awareness alone is not enough to secure the future of the biosphere. In the words of engineer and collapsology theorist Pablo Servigne, “We don’t need to raise awareness. We need to stir emotion.”

ANTHROPOCENE, The Human Epoch © Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier et Edward Burtynsky

If there is one lesson to be learned from Les Voyages de Capitaine futur, it’s that we have paid too much attention to engineers, industry executives, politicians and economic forecasters (and, more generally, the cohort of middle-aged cisgender white men from privileged socioeconomic backgrounds – the same old story). The time has come for them to make way for creators who think critically about technology and young people, who, as I write these words, are protesting in the streets and rallying to protect a future that is being stolen from them.

Régine Debatty, curator, art critic and creator of the blog We Make Money Not Art.