Bitter Medicine Conversations: Hybrid Reality, Immateriality Again in 21st Century
22 January 2021 Fri
The conversation below, available online on YouTube here in Turkish, was edited for clarity.
N.S.: Hello. Tonight I’m very happy to welcome two valued colleagues. Let me introduce Marlies Wirth, first. Marlies is the curator of Digital Culture and the Head of the Design Collection at MAK, Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna. She curates exhibitions in the fields of art, design, architecture and technology, and has a key role in planning the Vienna Biennial. She is one of the curators of the international travelling exhibition “Hello, Robot: Design Between Human and Machine”, a cooperation of Vitra Design Museum, MAK and Design Museum Gent. She was also nominated as the curator of the Austrian Pavilion of London Design Biennial for next year. She develops independent exhibition projects and authors for texts and essays for publications. Fredo, who was born as Frederik de Smet, graduated in 2001 with a master degree in Arts, Science and History. Recently, Fredo has been working as an independent curator and consulting on human/technology relations. In 2015, he started working as an advisor at the public broadcaster VRT and he was the advising curator for the “Hello, Robot” at Design Museum Gent. His last publication, “Artificial Stupidity” talks about our relation with technology. The book contains ten rules that offers us cheerful and personal help in becoming more humanistic rather than mechanical. Again, I am very happy to welcome you Marlies and Fredo. I’m now inviting you to talk about your interpretation of our exhibition. Let’s start!
M.W.: Thank you so much, Necmi. We’re very happy to be here. Hi Fredo! I want to start by telling how I met :mentalKLINIK and Fredo; and how this [meeting] came about. So, I have invited the artist duo to Vienna to create a performance piece for MAK Nite Lab, back in 2013. It was titled “Freshcut”. I think their work had similarities to this installation with the robots: It was very mechanical but also very human. It was about watching what was happening and it was quite a spectacle. We have been friends and colleagues ever since. Fredo and I met when we were working together with Amelie Klein and Thomas Geisler for the aforementioned “Hello, Robot” exhibition dealing with automation back in 2016. It’s a great pleasure to continue speaking and learning about these topics.
F.S.: Thank you for inviting me. Just like Marlies said, we’ve met in 2016. It is funny though; there’s a tendency for me to find out about interesting Brussels-born or Brussels-based people through Vienna. I didn’t know :mentalKLINIK, I just recently discovered that they are working partly from Brussels. But somehow, they needed to pass by Vienna first to appear on my radar.
M: So, I think the Roomba has also been part of our conversations back in the day when we were trying to find out what “robot” means. Did your opinion change since 2016? Have you learned more about what a robot is, and what they can do?
F: Not really actually. I was dealing more with what it means to be human rather than robots. Obviously I’m still in love with smart machineries, but it is more distinct for me now to talk about how we, humans relate to each other and to machineries. Quite early in the process of “Hello, Robot” in 2016, Amelie and you were discussing “Are we against them, or not? Do we need to be critical? These things are too smart, do we need to resist?” And I’m like an Accelerationist, I’m totally in! So actually, we were struggling with our own behavior, or opposition towards robots. And there is one sentence in my book that we wrote on the wall which was really important - and it still is - for me: “Embrace ambivalence”. That’s something I keep saying to myself.
M: That makes so much sense, in terms of the machinery, but also in terms of being human. We are also ambivalent, like this installation by :mentalKLINIK, which I’ve only seen online as it is made for the human spectators behind their screens in their homes or offices. It’s running 24/7 and we humans can watch Roombas trying to clean up a glittery mess in the exhibition space. [The movement of Roombas] makes interesting forms like ornaments. It runs all the time, even when we are not watching. Actually I’m quite ambivalent about the idea of online exhibitions, to be honest, but this is an interesting hybrid: It’s basically an actual exhibition in a physical space with actual equipment. But you can’t enter the space, you can only watch through a surveillance system. So where does that put the human? Because normally, I increasingly have the feeling that we are under surveillance; every click I make, every website I watch, my data is collected. But here, we are watching the machines doing their thing. So what does that say about us, in terms of being human or, “artificially stupid”?
F: First of all, I do have a question for you, Marlies. Would you like to see this exhibition in “real life”?
M: It’s not made for that. So… no. I do need [a certain] perspective on it, it’s made for being watched from a panopticon; as if you are standing in the middle of it...
F: It’s interesting; I’ve been looking at a lot of digital exhibitions or hybrids, but this is an exhibition that I do not want to see in real life. I’m really happy to be a spectator to the way it is presented. And I’m quite sure the impression that I would have, standing in the gallery, wouldn’t be so interesting as it is now. I’m really liking the CCTV camera angle which is obviously blinking towards data capitalism.
M: I’m quite a fan of Roombas, I have to admit. Actually, at MAK, we have recently acquired an object by the design team automato.farm. I think you know them as well. They did a VR project called Objective Realities and you can become a Roomba, a fan or a plug, and then you can also interact, given the plug has power whereas the fan looks at things from above and can twirl things around. And the Roomba has a very different perspective, it’s always around. It’s really interesting that they claim with this VR that you get inside, feeling what the objects “feel”, and how the objects are humanised. [Watching] this installation by :mentalKLINIK with the Roombas running around there without us present, I quite thought whether they are aware that they are in an art performance; whether this is a more meaningful work than cleaning a room. I’d like to think that what they are doing is a special task; they are helping the artists to create art.
F: Wouldn’t it be honest if we carved out an opportunity so that they can see the piece of art from the same perspective as us? That’s quite fair. They are creating something beautiful and we are enjoying it. Still the same relationship. We’re still not able to level ourselves with machineries. While at the same time, we are slaves.
M: Sure. The question also is, are we really losing our humanity when we interact more with machines? I don’t think so, but what is your opinion on that?
F: I’m quite convinced that, at the end of the day, what the machinery does is to reorganize the control of power. And humans like to be in control. We are creatures who love power, power structures, power organizations; we tell stories about power. That’s something you might also see in nature, but it’s not like a concept there. I think the machinery helps us become more human because it gives us more power. In that respect, I’m really in love with the machinery, especially with the more old-school ones, like shoes. Or an old-school, not digital clock. I had this interesting conversation with a professor who is developing AI, and I asked him: “How do you make your coffee?”. He had this elaborate explanation about the coffee-making process, about his espresso machine. He loved it. And then, I described my coffee-making ritual, which is something completely un-digital.
M: You make analog-coffee, that’s nice.
F: Yes. And I do it specifically; because I do not want it to be mediated by electronics, especially not AI, or anything smart. It’s a moment I take for myself so there’s no need for anything cognizing the process. And it’s in these little rituals we do everyday that I come to see the real impact of the machineries. It is interesting to be aware of how they organize our lives: It’s only possible to be human if we have these machines around us. So, this professor thought I was against AI, but it was only a metaphor to show that it’s not only about AI, about data capitalism, or about Roombas, for that matter. It’s about the way we need them to be what we are. So [no], the answer to your question is [no].
M: That was a great explanation. And I think you’re absolutely right. Remember The Pyramid of Technology by Next Nature Network: It basically shows that we live with technology from the early days on, like making fire or agriculture or having the light bulb... Then the technology got more and more digital, smart or complicated - but our relationship with it has always been there. A colleague and friend of mine, Paul Feigelfeld once said, “Intelligence was always artificial”. His explanation was that we have always had help of technology to help us think, to invent mathematics and to think in numbers. And I think the technology was very important to humans for abstract concepts to develop, as it was for daily tasks. But it created a wicked problem; and a wicked problem as we know is a problem that creates more problems. Even though it provides a part of the solution, more problems that have not been heard of before arise. And this makes life very interesting, both private and professional. So the question is, how will we deal with all that artificial stupidity that we created and that surrounds us? Maybe you can give some insight from your book.
F: First of all, it’s important to have enough media literacy. It’s quite a challenge to orientate yourself in the digital world. One of the reasons I’m still working in the media is because I’m trying to convince the media ecosystem that orientation should be central in the offering. Because people are just lost. I’m completely lost. But that’s not a problem; I’m the sort of guy who loves to be lost. Actually I think that most of the people like to be lost, that’s what they call a “holiday”: they make some savings and when they have enough money, they book themselves a holiday where they can finally lose control. Nevertheless, there is a huge need for orientation. What I also find is that using heuristics helps. It is putting really complex situations in really easy sentences, which are not completely exact descriptions of the situations but which will help you to get through your roughness or the wickedness of the issue. Have you ever seen or read, by the way, the essay about “Frisbee”?
M: No? Should I have??
F: I’m going to look for a little video that explains the basics of heuristics, but I’ll describe it. As I explained, heuristics is an easy way to find rules of thumb which never describe the pure reality or the complexity of the situations but will help you orientate yourself through them. The best way for me to understand how heuristics works, is to look at the example of a dog that tries to catch a frisbee on a beach. Imagine we would create a robot dog, and imagine the amount of calculation it would need for the dog to follow the frisbee in the air; make count of the weather input that is getting from the sensors, try to find out what the effect of the wind would be on the flying frisbee. How on earth is it possible for a dog with a brain capacity so small to do such a complex calculation?? Because it is using heuristics. It is using three, very simple rules of thumbs to get through the situation: One is, follow the frisbee instantly in the direction it’s flying. Two, never take your eyes off the subject. And three, open your mouth as soon as you’re closing off, and jump and catch it. Those three rules are enough for a dog to do complex computation of challenge. So to get out of, or to orientate ourselves in these situations, the rules of thumb help. “Embrace Ambivalence” is the first rule of thumb in my book. If anything, we need to be ready to fall in love with the machinery and we need to be really wary of the dangers. I mean, it’s always a knife with two edges, huh? Another rule of thumb is your own attention. Something also obvious in the meantime is that it’s an attention economy. Although we talk about it, we don’t have the tendency to value our own attention. It has been given away to institutions, to screens, to industries such as marketing. And it’s really curious why, but somehow we have said, “it’s okay that you value our attention”. So these rules of thumb help to make you more aware of the challenges and to be more media literate. But obviously, that’s just the beginning.
M: Absolutely. I think digital or media literacy is absolutely crucial, also when it comes to the political realm of the digital sphere and machinery. When you think about what systems can do with surveillance, with data, with intelligent machines, it is even more important that people read about it or use the internet or digital technology to educate themselves, know where to look and how to navigate. I think that’s increasingly becoming an awareness that has not been there so broadly a few years ago. For example, if you take Twitter, certain remarks by popular people are marked as “this might be false”, or “this has not been fact-checked”. It’s a new development that I appreciate very much that helps users to navigate in the digital sphere.
F: Yes, I am quite happy about the fact that reality is so questioned. I’m not the biggest fan of the old-school idea of reality. I guess I relate to :mentalKLINIK in that regard. Sometimes reality is more superficial than the artificial. But, yes, the fact-checks for political institutions are really relevant, obviously.
M: I get what you mean with this reality that’s alternate. This installation shows that there is this other place where the Roombas are roaming. They have been programmed of course, but they are still supporting the artist with their labor which is basically unpaid. We discussed this a lot when we worked on “Hello, Robot”, asking “Are we slaves of these machines, or are we treating the machines as unpaid laborers?”. I think we do. If we are to think “What does an art institution do with all these topics? How do we go about showing what technology can do?”; [Do we show that] in very complex, thematic parcours or, as in this case, as :mentalKLINIK shows, in a very poetic and quite simple [way]? - simple, not in terms of technology but, in the sense that it consists of four elements: the space, the Roombas, the glitter and the surveillance - What can be conveyed in terms of the role of art and technology together?
F: There is a huge challenge there, obviously. Because, especially this year we, the artists or curators, have to [hang about] our screens to be able to talk to each other, or to experience the cultural installation, however we are seeing and dealing with the same habits and values of the digital economy. And even though I really like the installation, the UX is not what I’m used to. All of a sudden you need to start thinking about user experience. And the sad thing is that many people expect the same user experience as “the best they’ve ever had.” Having experienced Netflix or Spotify, they expect from a gallery to do the same, which is obviously not right.
M: I think so, too. That was a huge challenge in the first period of the lockdown phase here with questions like, “What do we do now? Online shows, what should they be?”. We learned at MAK that some exhibitions have a lot of content where you can show things or film the curator going through an exhibition. It can be valued as a digital experience. It’s not the same as visiting the show but it’s not conceived for that. It’s a mediated help measurement that we take when we have to shut down. But the other way was the artists who create purely digital work that have their lives on screen anyway. Then it makes sense to have an online show. Again, I think it is really interesting about this specific installation that it is a hybrid and it wouldn’t have worked any other way. So, it is perfectly normal for us now to watch this installation all the time. As you mentioned clocks earlier, time is increasingly becoming fluid. It is really problematic, as there are opening times of [galleries], meaning you can only go to see an exhibition at a certain time or a day in the week. So I think this idea of 24/7, whereby you can check at 4 am, what the Roombas are doing, which ornament they vacuum next, is interesting.
F: I really love the saying “24/7”, by the way. The brochure of :mentalKLINIK’s exhibition is that in one part, a really traditional brochure describing all the objects and materials and the artists; like the reflection of the old world, explaining who the installation is made for. But there was this one sentence that really struck me, saying, “a space where different visual experiences are fermented”. Indeed it’s like an ecosystem that is indeed happening 24/7; it’s more like a second nature than anything else. We humans are obsessed with linear time, and all the rest of the space and earth is organized according to this circular time. So this “fermenting” idea is so beautiful.
M: Yes, it has another life when it’s transformed into something, like in the fermentation process. And I was obsessed as a kid and still am somehow, with the idea of a parallel world. I was recently researching this; because there is the saying “There is no Planet B”. But in fact, the old Greeks came up with the idea that there is a “Counter-Earth” that is exactly like the planet Earth, but somewhere else. The people do the same things at the same time but we don’t interact; it’s called Antichthon. I thought this idea of having another world was really interesting in terms of the secret lives of machines that I used to imagine, or also began imagining with :mentalKLINIK’s installation now. [I ponder over] this autonomous world and what happens when we’re not watching. I mean, we can watch 24/7 but maybe it would develop very differently.
F: I like the idea of a Counter-Earth. But tell me, Marlies, why were you obsessed with parallel realities?
M: I don’t know actually, there is no factual explanation for it. In terms of parallel worlds, I think that the art scene is quite a good example because people claim that we live in a bubble which is sometimes true; it keeps us safe and warm. But sometimes it shelters us from knowing what’s actually going on in the world. We increasingly stick out of our bubbles nonetheless. I like the parallel world idea very much because it is kind of a thought experiment, whereby you can think about how things would have developed differently. Basically we’re developing alternative realities with every decision we make, and smart systems do that all the time. They calculate maybe thousands of parallel worlds before they make any decision. Take the computers for instance, they already see what the outcome would be after 20-thousand steps, and then choose the path that will most likely be successful. We can’t do it. So developing parallel worlds in this sense is fascinating, isn’t it?
F: I’m asking this question because I’m conflicted with myself regarding what to expect from the artists. Do we expect artists to create parallel worlds, like :mentalKLINIK has done with a 24/7 exhibition where these Roombas are creating visual impressions? Or, do [we] expect from the artists, especially now after this crucial year, to reflect on and to be more interactive with the actual world or to be less caught up in the parallel world of the cultural institutions? So this is something I’m conflicted about.
M: “Embrace ambivalence”, Fredo. I can only say that…
N: The last question, or the last interpretation that Fredo posed is extremely sexy. Marlies, I think this is one of the key elements that we have to talk about. I would be really very thankful if you could give some short input, because this is exactly what I tried to focus on.
M: Absolutely. I’m thinking all the time about this question whether the art world should be a parallel world or it should deal with real world problems. And as you may know, currently at the MAK, we are dealing with the topic for the new Vienna Biennial. After we had automation, and AI, and the values and ethics of the digital systems and technologies, we are now onto climate change and climate care and our planet. And [coupled with] this whole pandemic going on, there is this huge question regarding the technology surveillance, data grabbing craziness, that :mentalKLINIK has described in their interview, [asking whether] art should give a comment on that rather than do something about it. Or, should art put us into a speculative other world where we could suddenly stand out against these systems or these problems; where we could suddenly overcome crisis and total differences and political issues? Or should art try to let our thoughts go away from the real world problems onto other harmonious, beautiful things? I think I do like this idea of speculation or a fictional approach very much because it can have such an enormous impact, socially and politically, if you confront people in the art world and beyond with something unexpected, or harsh, or dystopian, or funny; which at the same time [provides] a mirror to what we are actually living through. And then, that might be the little tip they need to take action about a real world problem.
N: Fredo, I’m seeing some skepticism in your eyes. I’m really interested if you have anything to add.
F: There’s obviously not one easy solution regarding the world of artists and the socio-economic, political situations. I wanted to react to something you said earlier, Marlies, about there being no Planet B. I guess I was not alone enjoying the cardboard slogans when the youthful crowd was standing up and raising their voice. But there was a sign that really got my attention, and it was saying not “Climate Change” but “System Change”. Sometimes, I do have the feeling that the cultural institution is not focused, or has lost its focus on what really matters; the systemic change.
M: We are really trying to work on that in our upcoming exhibition, which has the title “Climate Care” but the subtitle is “Reimagining shared planetary futures”. We will try to deal with this idea of how to think circularly in terms of production but also systems; and also convey that the climate is absolutely depending much more on societal and economic change. The blame is on the system and not on the individual, but we as individuals together in a collective can do something about it. But it’s a very complex task. With the technology topics, it is always conveyed that you are powerless in the face of the system. In an interview :mentalKLINIK talked about the big companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon etc... There is a work by young designers called King GAFA - Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple - and they describe this kingdom where the data is the harvest. Of course it’s a problem but, I have to remind that I’m building King GAFA’s kingdom with my data by my own free will, because I get in return a place to live. I can use social media but in return, I have to give away my data. This is a real problem as we don’t understand the interdependency. Even in the real, analog world, with everything we do or don’t do, or say or don’t say, we are backing systems. This is really hard to grasp. If we don’t react or call it out in some non-aggressive ways, we are backing the system. And this applies to every major issue actually.
F: Well, it is very hard to grasp. But again, referring to the Greeks, there is a way I have found out to make it quite easy, simple even: and it is to look at the values that the system is built upon. And these values are things that we can easily connect to and use to connect to one another. So this is something I’m trying to do in my practice is to find more time and space and language for talking about these values. And if you say, my free will, for example, the value of freedom, it is obviously something that we need to redefine.
F: Aristo had this very practical way of using Ethics. It’s called an “Eudaimonia” [whereby he suggested that] the values come to life when you act upon them. So, Ethics is not [taken as] today where we say “We need ethics for Artificial Intelligence”, then call some professors to write on it which nobody understands and think we’ve done our job. Ethics in this regard are more like an application form for everyday life. Yes, it’s a complex world we live in. Yes, the artists have a talent to turn these complex situations into sometimes beautiful, or to mirroring creations. But the whole discourse surrounding this should, in my humble opinion, be more about the values that we are sharing and exchanging.
N: Fredo, I think this is an extremely nice and smart conclusion. These reflections show me extremely challenging new directions for the interpretation of the work. Again, I’m very thankful for your participation.