By VICTOR SLEDGE October 18, 2023
In many ways, nature and technology are polar opposites. Nature is living, breathing and perennial. Technology, on the contrary, only has a beating heart of algorithms and circuits. It’s ever-changing, and the more it advances, the more those changes are made to directly imitate nature, whether it be humanity itself or the world around us.
Jiayu Liu is a media artist based in Beijing and London, creating immersive media installations that explore this very dichotomy, or lack thereof. For Liu, more and more, we experience the world through the lens of technology. While some may be alarmed by that increasingly salient relationship, Liu seems more interested in how the relationship can influence our experience with nature.
“I aspire to create a world where technology and nature coexist harmoniously,” Liu explains.
Liu considers technology to be her “invisible partner” as she works in between the gaps of the natural and the artificial. Thinking of technology as a tool to further immerse us in the world around us, as opposed to a wall that keeps us from it, has helped her develop more fruitful ways to explore that relationship.
“It has challenged me to establish a language that seemingly juxtaposes artificial and non-artificial, machine and non-machine, algorithmic and non-algorithmic elements,” she explains.
For Liu, technology is more of a lens through which to explore the world around us than a substitute for what’s in it. Her work seems to employ technology as an extension of our senses that helps us experience the natural world in more acute, mesmeric ways.
“I am particularly intrigued to delve into how machines perceive and interpret the world we inhabit. By embracing the viewpoint of machines, we can gain fresh perspectives and novel understandings that prompt us to question our own human existence and cultural narratives,” she says.
Her perspective on technology is one that breathes new life into how we think of tools like artificial intelligence and its role in appreciating the world around us as well.
Liu’s work is surreal. You approach the work, often in a dark room, and you see these projections that may imitate a dynamic mountain range, the rush of flowing water or ever-changing skyscapes. These natural scenes can’t be contained in one room, but their essence can. As you spend time with the work, you notice all the details that make it so similar but yet so different from what you experience in the real world.
The attention you pay to the contour of a mountain slope or the illusion of depth in a river created by technology and how you compare those to the natural world – that’s where you start to understand how Liu is reshaping the narrative around technology like AI.
“When we view AI and its creations as something beyond our everyday experience rather than mere imitations of humanity, it opens up new possibilities,” she says. “Instead of vilifying AI for deviating from a direct reflection of human experience, we can appreciate its ability to offer alternative perspectives and uncover hidden patterns in the vast complexity of the world.”
We don’t have the same critique of technology like cameras in art when they capture natural landscapes because we understand that what we see through that lens is a direct, unwavering reflection of how nature exists. But with AI, leaving the door open to different perspectives has clearly settled with people differently over the years. Liu is committed to these alternative perspectives, however, even though she doesn’t have to be.
The advancement of AI technology has reached a place where its imitations can be virtually identical to what we see with our own eyes in nature.
“Current AI is highly advanced. After a few days of processing, it can quickly generate images identical to satellite images on Google,” she says.
For example, in Streaming Stillness, which visually reinterprets China’s terrain, the AI technology she used learned 10,000 Chinese ink-and-wash paintings that were trained on 3D graphs created with terrain data. Works like this have the potential to simply be a complete remake of whatever terrain Liu so chooses to work with, but for her there’s more to be found in the small differences she can leave in.
“I'm more intrigued by the chaos within the machine, or rather, I'm drawn to witnessing the machine's unique creations. I have found that pushing the boundaries and introducing subtle deviations from what we consider ‘real’ can often generate intrigue and fascination,” she explains.
That creative risk is something that naturally causes a stir in people. We are often more put off by something that approaches reality than something that completely misses the mark. For instance, the idea of standing in a room full of mannequins. But that small bridge between reality and artifice is what keeps you dialed in to Liu’s work. For her, that half step away from reality is what pushes us to the point of creative expansion.
“By embracing the idea that AI's creations need not be limited to imitating us, we open ourselves to artistic possibilities that challenge our preconceived notions,” she says.
In a way, Liu’s work also adds a bit of humanity back into how we use technology through these preconceived notions. There’s a certain consciousness we program into AI and other technology that’s meant to speak to our own ideas of the world around us. It creates a cycle where we’re using our own understanding of the natural world to create technology that can further expand and interrogate that understanding.
There’s something to be said of that consciousness and how technology expresses it the more we work with it. “My artistic journey aims to delve into the symbiotic relationship between technology and art, specifically the expressive consciousness within machines,” she explains.
For Liu, that exploration has created space for her to explore how her own culture can be expressed through the technology she uses in her practice.
“As a Chinese artist, I seek to merge Eastern poetic aesthetics with AI art creation. Integrating AI and art opens up new perspectives and possibilities, combining profound expressions from Eastern culture with the autonomous creativity and desire for expression found in machines,” she says.
As a graduate from London’s Royal College of Art, she’s also spent time in academia exploring the expressive consciousness found in technology and how it can be situated in humanity and the natural world.
She explains, “I hope to witness the expressiveness and consciousness of machines and their role in humanity and ecology. These research endeavors deepen our understanding of machine consciousness, prompting profound reflections and stimulating meaningful discussions.”
Tuning into these meaningful discussions, you’ll hear a certain release of technology from the indictments held against it in art and its relationship to nature and humanity. Liu’s work shows that we aren’t limited by technological expansion in art. Instead, we are privy to more varied ways to interact with our experience in the world.
As opposed to fighting against the two entities that we often consider to be at odds, Liu asks us to consider how connected nature and technology are when we view art, humanity, consciousness, and the physical.
“This dichotomy invites us to reflect on our connection with the world, urging us to value and respect nature's splendor, recognize its inherent wisdom, and embrace our interconnectedness with all living beings,” she says. “It challenges us to seek harmonious coexistence and collaboration with the natural world rather than exploitation or domination.” WM
Victor Sledge is an Atlanta-based writer with experience in journalism, academic, creative, and business writing. He has a B.A. in English with a concentration in British/American Cultures and a minor in Journalism from Georgia State University. Victor was an Arts & Living reporter for Georgia State’s newspaper, The Signal, which is the largest university newspaper in Georgia. He spent a year abroad studying English at Northumbria University in Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK, where he served as an editor for their creative magazine before returning to the U.S. as the Communications Ambassador for Georgia State’s African American Male Initiative. He is now a master’s student in Georgia State’s Africana Studies Program, and his research interest is Black representation in media, particularly for Black Americans and Britons. His undergraduate thesis, Black on Black Representation: How to Represent Black Characters in Media, explores the same topic.