Segue Reading Series
April 1, 2023
By STEPHEN WOZNIAK March, 2023
“It’s a story about predicting the future. But actually, it’s a story about the past.”
– Tianyi Sun from VISIBLE_DEVICES
“Since a three-dimensional object casts a two-dimensional shadow, we should be able to imagine the unknown four-dimensional object whose shadow we are.”
– Marcel Duchamp, Artist
“…the same rhetoric of technology automatically leading to progress and more equality is being deployed yet again. And the slogan is this magic spell of the N.F.T…because it doesn’t mean anything! But because it sounds complicated or high-tech, it draws so much attention, right? It’s just basically a mechanism of disinformation.”
– Hito Steyerl, Artist and Author
“Man has become less rational than his own objects, which now run ahead of him, so to speak, organizing his surroundings and thus appropriating his actions.”
– Jean Baudrillard, Philosopher
It’s here and it’s here to stay. But stay and do what exactly? While humans have engaged in ideation on robots and computers to advance our cause for thousands of years, artificial intelligence as a technology is a relatively new invention with varying goals set by each of its university laboratories, specialty makers and online portal research and development teams. Like all novel inventions, early adoption came fast from those who pumped money into and got the most money out of this hi-tech turning point. Omnipotents, like global search engine leader Google and mega sales-force-of-nature Amazon, are, indubitably, already in the game of AI, so you’ll buy many more items than you need.
It’s clear, though, even from the current clumsy online navigation routes that dump mountains of you-liked-that-so-you’ll-love-this across your interweb view of the world, that these corporations are also trying to develop your taste and influence your person on another deeper, possibly darker, level. Whereas Microsoft Corporation’s Bill Gates is gravely concerned about super intelligence, Google’s Larry Page loves it, stating plainly, “It would understand exactly what you wanted and it would give you the right thing.” Luckily, a growing band of thinking, engaged artists and philosophers are looking past the value of this binary coin. As curator Christopher Y. Lew sees it, the work of such creators and thinkers, like Josh Kline, suggests that “it’s not just Big Tech and corporations that are going to determine what our futures are like but that individuals can do this and, in a sense, ought to do it,” asserting that the work is a critical souvenir of our own agency.
Among those concerned with such matters – and many others beyond the good fight-the-powers – are installation and performance artists Tianyi Sun and Fiel Guhit. They investigate, perforate and tickle numerous views on artificial intelligence, machine learning and our experience with them in their new ongoing art installation series, CHAPTER_, an incarnation of which, FROM_LISTENERS, will be performed at the renowned Artists Space in New York as a part of the venue’s Segue Reading Series on April 1st. Like the VISIBLE_DEVICES performance that they created for the 5x5 series at 99 Canal, FROM_LISTENERS will include a rich multiple media mixture of sculpture, performance, sound and the artifacts of machine learning in a unique, one-time live event.
Below is a review of the CHAPTER_ performance installation, which informs the set-up of the FROM_LISTENERS performance installation.
As audience members enter the darkened, purple-hazed room – loosely populated by the ground sprawl of wired computing devices, flat-screen monitors, colored lights, a mini synthesizer, illuminated rectilinear clear objects and digital wall projections – Tianyi Sun winds through the crowd, speaking a frosty, fractured, poetic narrative. But we soon realize that a dialogue between two voices remains in play; one is a pronounced AI-generated series of declarations in Sun’s voice, while the other is her live, more human response to the call. Wearing a white lab coat, we may feel she has, like Doctor Frankenstein, ostensibly created the other echoing, staccato speak, but like Frankenstein’s Monster, it has a life of its own. We hear metallic and broken sound bites like, “Spotlights are versatile and powerful tools. The spotlight is on me. The spotlight was spot-on the topic,” which deal with looking, focus and perception. Sun responds live with, “’A spotlight’, she said,” possibly in the third person, making me scratch my head. Abbott and Costello’s famous comedic “Who’s on First?” routine comes to mind. Then again, “What came first?” Was it the source human dialogue or the AI machine dialogue? It begs numerous questions about our identity and voice in the face of AI’s vastly growing presence – in both our many-hours-a-day virtual electronic lives and our dwindling human-to-human, real-time lives. We blur them both constantly and AI seems to blur them back.
At other times in the performance, Sun’s physical movement sometimes triggers the AI voice to help her. “Are you looking for…are you looking for a microphone to capture nothing?” asks the machine. “To capture the green hat. Yes, indeed,” the live Sun answers, alluding to a member of the audience wearing a green ski hat (and that accidentally also connects to the Chinese story of surrogates and deception about a foolish scholar whose wife wore his green hat to signal her neighbor lover to come over while the scholar was away lecturing). But subsequent out-of-turn AI one-liners prompt the live Sun to declare that the machine is disturbing the story. Is the “real” live Sun drawing a line in the sand, marking healthy boundaries or was she told to say that indirectly by the machine?
The FROM_LISTENERS installation mingles, mashes and minces scrolling text, conflicting voices, disparate sound fragments and key visual imagery, staging an encounter between representations in two mediums: one visual and one verbal, “testing the capacity of language to trace the contours of the material world, of bodies and objects,” as Guhit and Sun indicate in their statement on the project.
I Zoomed with the artists briefly to talk about the series of performance installations and their motivations as artists. Sun spoke of her desire to “complicate” the common, current, commercial technological transactions we routinely encounter. She and Guhit have deliberately chosen to unfurl the mess of intellectual, experiential and emotional complexities born of AI in art rather than simplify them in singular fixed works. It’s important that we see a network among the objects and the voices in the installation. That – and the present tense audience action/reaction – point to the duo’s focus on process and research above all.
When developing the installations, the two artists “talked about this whole idea of generation and recursive narratives,” explained Guhit. “AI makes you respond to the present, yet also to the past it’s based on. Our perspective towards AI: there has often been a flatness and indexicality with the past when we bring it to the present. When you see a lot of AI art, you feel like you’re not being shown anything new. We decided to challenge that notion. We’re interested in generation, changing over time – the new, active generation. How it stands in tension and confronts the present. In a performance setting, you have to deal with that.”
Their performance installations raise innumerable questions about perception, time, space, information and what art can do. There are many ties to the great work and experiments of the Fluxus, Dada and Surrealism art movement, of course. Those each favored the use of chance and happenstance, especially in live performance, musical and spoken word event settings that integrate or expose the stuff of life we’ve elected to use. In 2023, Sun and Guhit up the ante, helping us to examine intelligence, authorship, agency, propagation, and the life of AI far beyond the online shopping checkout line. WM
To experience the new Tianyi Sun and Fiel Guhit performance installation, FROM_LISTENERS, go to Artists Space in New York on April 1st. WM
Stephen Wozniak is a visual artist, writer, and actor based in Los Angeles. His work has been exhibited in the Bradbury Art Museum, Cameron Art Museum, Leo Castelli Gallery, and Lincoln Center. He has performed principal roles on Star Trek: Enterprise, NCIS: Los Angeles, and the double Emmy Award-nominated Time Machine: Beyond the Da Vinci Code. He co-hosted the performing arts series Center Stage on KXLU radio in Los Angeles and guest hosts Art World: The Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art podcast in New York City. He earned a B.F.A. from Maryland Institute College of Art and attended Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. To learn more, go to: www.stephenwozniakart.com and www.stephenwozniak.com. Follow Stephen on Instagram at @stephenwozniakart and @thestephenwozniak.view all articles from this author