Artificial intelligence is on everyone's lips these days. From LinkedIn articles about whose jobs will be replaced first, to never-ending articles about new developments in self-driving cars, to robots that have more soul than their human creators in TV shows like the excellent Westworld, AI both fascinates and horrifies us with its implications on the way we live.
Yet even as we hold our breath for the new era of AI, we're already deeply accustomed to using digital technology to edit and extend our very own identities. This is the very topic tackled by K11 Art Foundation and New York New Museum's recent joint show, 'After Us'.
Lauren Cornell, New Museum's Associate Director of Technology Initiatives and curator of this show, explains, "With the rise of gaming, the social web, and artificial intelligence, proxies have proliferated, commingling with all aspects of daily life... Avatars, unlike robots, are linked inextricably to our human selves, defined not against but through us. They are as much part of our world as they are new proposals for it."
Three aspects of life with our digital avatars from the show made a deep impression on me: paralysis of the body and mind, loneliness, and the soul-searching it inspires.
Video games give you worlds of complete fantasy. Here, gamers can be free of the usual rules and restrictions of real life, become superheroes or villains, and make a difference. But while our virtual selves do battle, flying and kicking and shooting balls of fire, our physical selves are static, made obsolete, fossilised. Li Liao's work Unwinnable Game has several professional gamers sitting side by side, playing a game according to a set of rules that makes it impossible for any of them to win. Like Sisyphus, they are forever stuck, paralysed physically and mentally, a reboot of 'Waiting for Godot' for our digital times.
Social media has made it easier and more convenient than ever to communicate, yet our sense of isolation has grown. Chen Zhou's film 'Life Imitation' tells the story of a Chinese woman, following her life on the streets of Shanghai as well as the virtual ones of GTA 5’s Los Santos. Yet wherever she goes she is trapped by her loneliness. Chen Zhou aims "to depict the lives of urban youth, and to touch upon the broader topic of performance in everyday life”.
Whether playing a character in a video game or behaving according to social expectations, constant role playing leads us to start losing grip of our own identity, making true connection between one another more impossible than ever.
The internet has brought us a modern day flood worthy of Noah, a flood of endless information and content that threatens to drown our puny human brains. To navigate it all, we have created programmes to sort and manage this sea of data. Imagine if one day such a programme learns not just to analyse but to actually feel, what might that be like? Cecile B. Evans' piece 'What the Heart Wants' does just that, a film about "a programme that is a woman" called Hyper. Hyper is not human, nor does her story follow ordinary human logic and chronology. Like the operating system Scarlett Johansson plays in 'Her', Hyper can be active at countless 'places' at the same time, analysing information and stored memories, searching for meaning. Even as her story confounds human logic and understanding, this computer programme's soul-searching is beautifully moving.
Shanghai chi K11 Museum
Curator: Lauren Cornell
Assistant Curator: Chen Baoyang
Artists: Dora Budor, Chen Zhou, Ian Cheng, Cecile Evans, JODI, Li Liao, Lin Ke, Lu Yang, Miao Ying, Takeshi Murata, Katja Novitskova, Jon Rafman, Rachel Rossin, Stewart Uoo, Yu Honglei