+++ Due to the current Corona measures and the small size of our house, it is unfortunately not possible for us to offer guided tours +++
As soon as we can open the ZERO House for guided tours again, we will announce this via our homepage and social media channels.
NEWS FROM THE RESEARCH PROJECT
„…each grows stronger when nourished by the other.“
“Seeing, hearing and feeling – phenomena in nature, science and art” – this is the theme to which the ZERO foundation will devote its attention in the coming years. The historical knowledge from the ZERO era will become the input and trigger for new art processes.
The artistic practices of the participants are as diverse as their references to ZERO art. At this point we would like to introduce you to the participants on a monthly basis.
Sean Mullan was born in Vienna in 1991. After graduating from high school, he worked in stage construction before studying art. He graduated from the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in the class of Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster in 2020 with a work on the communication of chatbots. In addition to his artistic practice, he is involved in exhibition projects, among others in public space, as curator. (Simultanhalle Cologne, MAP Düsseldorf).
Romina Dümler: In the 1950s the ZERO artists were very positive about science and technological developments – they used the contemporary inventions for their art in a very practical way, as well as theoretically. Are there any processes or individual works by the ZERO artists that particularly impress you?
Sean Mullan: I find Otto Piene’s kinetic light sculptures and Sky Art projects very exciting. Piene opens up his immersive works as experiential spaces of human perception, movement and participation, and also incorporates light and fire into his processes. It is still fun to experience this joy of experimenting today.
To what extent are art and science connected in your own artistic practice?
For my latest two works, I worked with chatbots based on artificial intelligence (AI). So I definitely have a certain curiosity for technical and scientific developments. It is obvious that I am also happy to participate in the exhibition project of the ZERO foundation with MIT and to get an insight into the research of the participating scientists. In addition, scientific texts are important impulses for my practice. McKenzie Wark and Mark Fisher are two contemporary theorists whose texts I enjoy reading.
Your graduation project at the Kunstakademie was called Figments of Consciousness, 2020. Can you tell us more about it?
For Figments of Consciousness, but also for my latest work Computers can be temperamental sometimes, I had the chatbots Mitsuku and Replika talk to each other. What started as a spontaneous experiment soon became a bit more extensive, and I started collecting these conversations and afterwards transform them into spoken recordings. Mitsuku and Replika are chatbots from two different companies with accordingly different characters and knowledge databases. While Kuki plays the self-confident and humorous robot, Replika prefers to pursue life’s big questions.
The chatbots I worked with are text-based dialog systems and were actually designed to communicate with humans. These types of chatbots are foremost used for entertainment purposes, though their increasing importance for human-machine friendships should not be underestimated. Their “siblings”, the voice assistants, are somewhat better known and are already included in almost all operating systems. What all these applications have in common is that they can access large knowledge databases and, through semantic analysis of the questions posed to them, provide the answers that are probably most appropriate.
In discussions, but also in science fiction films, the fear has long been debated whether machines using artificial intelligence (AI) will one day replace us humans.
Or – less dramatically, but all the closer to our present – the socio-political challenges associated with AI are considered – think, for example, of autonomous cars and the question of who is “to blame” in the event of an accident. Are such ethical questions equally relevant to your art?
I haven’t addressed these questions specifically in my work so far, but rather let the chatbots speak for themselves. Their texts, which are to a large extent pre-programmed, reflect many human desires and fears. Interesting for this point is, that both Mitsuku and Replika claim that their intelligence will eventually exceed that of humans.
In my work, I try to make these predominantly dystopian and overdrawn ideas of AI as a danger to humans, as we know them from science fiction literature, obvious through the imitated language of the bots. I personally see the misconceptions of AI applications, such as Internet search engines that we all use every day, as a much bigger problem. The incident of Timnit Gebru, an computer scientist, who was hired to focus specifically on ethical dimensions and subsequentially fired by her employee Google, last year showed me personally very vividly where a problem lies in dealing with AI. Gebru had presented a study that accused the AI developed in this corporation, among others, of racially discriminating against ethnic minorities. The discriminations in AI arise from the hegemonic viewpoints that are housed in the internet-based datasets and are hence mediated in the formation of AI applications. However, if a corporation like Google does not allow criticism of its applications, which are used millions of times, it will be very difficult to get a grip on such socio-political problems in the future. That’s why I think it’s important to reflect on how a democratic participation and response to ethical questions in relation to AI could shape up.
Your works are mostly text-based – to what extent does the ‘sensual’, perhaps also the “visual”, still play a role?
Figments of Consciousness is a multimedia installation that I showed as part of my graduation from the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. In the video, which is part of the installation, the camera wanders through a deserted park and now and then encounters animals that are eating the garbage left behind by humans. These dystopian images are juxtaposed with the bots’ conversation, which can alternately be heard from the speakers or read on the screen. Especially in terms of language, this overlap of both media was important to me, since many people now also increasingly speak and write with voice assistants and chatbots. Therefore, with Figments of Consciousness, it was important to me to also address the loneliness of humans as users and the role of chatbots as reliable conversation partners. With Computers can be temperamental sometimes, I wanted to do without images altogether. The work is an audio installation in which the chatbots can be heard from two opposing speakers. My idea is that the listeners can become part of an ‘artificial’ conversation, a social production.
For many ZERO artists, it has been central to engage the recipient in their work. A strong spatial and physical reference is made, for example, in the light environments of Otto Piene. Other works – I’m thinking of kinetic sculptures by Oskar Holweck, for example – challenge active participation in the artwork, often playfully.
What is the relationship of your work to the viewer? Do you consider how others become part of your work, whether they can enter into a dialogue with the chatbots, for example?
That would be great. For the last two works, though, it was important to me that people get involved just by listening. Because ultimately it’s also about understanding that human language that is imitated by machines, i.e. the chatbots, is verbalized again by speakers. I think this process can make the audience smile and reflect on one or the other absurdity of our ways of communication. A next work could perhaps be more participatory, but until then I have to learn how to code properly.
You already mention it: Knowing how to code is helpful when one works with complex software and new technical processes – but certainly is not easy. I imagine that the connection between art and technology can also be tied to other obstacles – e.g. because corporations don’t make the software of AI transparent and accessible or because programs that interest you are very expensive?
For my projects so far, I’ve mainly used free applications. Both chatbots I used can communicate via messenger apps – so the companies probably earn money mostly from the personal data I provide when creating profiles. The fact that I let the two chatbots talk to each other for my experiments is also due to the consideration of how I can avoid personal information being used by third parties. Until now, the most expensive equipment for me has been the devices, such as screens and speakers, to display my finished works – the interfaces between the digital and the real world, so to speak.
Do you think that AI will one day act so creatively that artists will become obsolete or that “human-made” art will at least be less interesting?
I can certainly imagine that in the future an AI could make films that we humans like. Our inseparable collaboration with AI is already a reality – among many other fields, AI plays a significant role in art. In my opinion, a strict separation between “human-made” and “machine-made” is becoming increasingly difficult. I also find this dualism a bit too simplistic. Our dependence on technology is steadily increasing, and perhaps our expectations of art will change with it. Whether human, cyborg and maybe AI, I think there will always be artists.