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Helen Todd is co-founder and CEO of Sociality Squared and the human behind Creativity Squared.
Marlies is the Curator for Digital Culture and Head of the Design Collection at the MAK – Museum of Applied Arts

Ep42. Marlies Wirth: Interrogate A.I. with Art

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Ep42. Interrogate A.I. with Art: Explore A.I.’s Impact on Culture and Society with Marlies Wirth, Curator for Digital Culture and Head of the Design Collection at the MAK — Museum of Applied Arts

Discover thought-provoking exhibits that interrogate technology through art with Marlies Wirth, the Curator for Digital Culture and Head of the Design Collection at the MAK — Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna, Austria. 

Marlies’s unique role is to keep her finger on the pulse of emerging transformative technology and commission artworks that interpret tech’s cultural, social, ecological, and political impacts. In collaboration with artists and institutions around the world (and, you could say, in other worlds), she brings together critical reflections on our present and visions of our future as they’re shaped by technology. 

“It’s so interesting how culture changes through technology… especially to see it through the eyes of artists, designers, and architects who have been deeply concerned with these topics.”

Marlies Wirth

Marlies is also a frequent participant in international lectures, talks, and juries on art, design, and digitalization. In addition to her institutional work, she develops independent exhibition projects with international artists and writes essays and texts for publications.

Some of her many notable exhibitions include “Artificial Tears,” “Hello, Robot. Design between Human and Machine,” “Uncanny Values. Artificial Intelligence & You,” “Pardon Our Dust.” 

Helen and Marlies discuss the challenging questions that inspire these works, such as what makes us human, what we can gain and lose from integrating with machines, and how identity translates into the virtual world.

Don’t miss this episode’s discussions about how a disembodied online avatar challenges our ideas about identity, how we manage ownership of shared virtual spaces, and how Chelsea Manning’s DNA relates to bias in A.I. training datasets. 

Exhibition view, ARTIFICIAL TEARS
MAK – Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna, 2017
© MAK/Aslan Kudrnofsky
Aleksandra Domanović, Things to Come, 2014
UV flatbed print on polyester foil, 7 panels à 5 parts; Unique
Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Leighton, Berlin

Cry If You’re Human 

Artificial intelligence has inspired a recent reckoning with the idea of machines automating our lives – and livelihoods, but that conundrum’s been on the minds of Marlies and her collaborators since 2017. 

Her department started to work with artists for “Hello, Robot. Design between Human and Machine,” an exhibit interpreting our increasingly robotic and automated world, and wanted to explore the other side of the coin. 

Our bodies and minds are such a great system, even more intricate than any technology. So I wanted to look at the question, what can and cannot be automated?”

Marlies Wirth

The result of their curiosity became “ARTIFICIAL TEARS. Singularity & Humanness,” hosted by the MAK and featuring installations from over a dozen multidisciplinary artists. 

Marlies says the inspiration for the exhibition theme came to her through research on tears. It turns out that tears are just as complex as the emotions that cause them. A tear shed out of pain, for example, contains natural painkiller chemicals, and emotional tears (or “psychic tears”) contain anti-stress hormones to help calm you down. For adults, crying is often also a physical effort, which eventually calms you down by exhausting you. 

Exhibition view, ARTIFICIAL TEARS
MAK – Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna, 2017
© MAK/Aslan Kudrnofsky
Sean Raspet, Ester Grid, 2015
16 artifical flavor components
Courtesy of the artist and New Gallery, Paris
Kiki Smith, Untitled, 1992/93
12-part installation, receptacles made of mirrored glass, pedestal
MAK GK 105

While artificial tears can be helpful if you have dry eyes or smoked a sneaky joint, they don’t replace the benefits of a good old-fashioned sob session. Fake tears are a metaphor for the uniquely human things that cannot be automated or outsourced to modern technology precisely because they are so human.

The exhibition featured diverse works, such as Sean Raspet’s collection of 16 artificial scents and flavors, and other works exploring uniquely natural traits such as human instinct and the role of microbes – other species – living inside our gut microbiome. 

“ARTIFICIAL TEARS” (the exhibition) considers these symptoms of humanness in the context of “singularity,” a term coined by Ray Kurzweil referring to a theoretical point in the future when humans take control of our evolution by integrating our biology with machines.   

It’s anyone’s guess whether humans and machines will ever integrate to such an extent, but the real questions that “ARTIFICIAL TEARS” asks us to consider are about what we bring to that integration, what we risk losing to machine automation, and what we hold so dear that we can’t risk automating. 

What’s on your list? 

Exhibition view, La Turbo Avedon. Pardon Our Dust 
MAK – Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna, 2022
© kunst-dokumentation.com/MAK

Avatars, Identity-Bending, and Ownership in Shared Virtual Spaces

LaTurbo Avedon (they/them) is a digital avatar, curator, and artist who headlined an exhibition Marlies curated in 2022 called “Pardon Our Dust,” which explored the idea of public common spaces in virtual realities owned by private corporations. 

“Born” circa 2008 in the proto-metaverse computer game “Second Life,” LaTurbo Avedon’s work has appeared in the Whitney Museum of Art and other galleries,  as well as in activations such as the Manchester International Festival. Their work has also featured in games such as the popular online shooter “Fortnite” and others. 

You may be wondering, what exactly is LaTurbo Avedon, or who’s actually behind the curtain? That’s the point. LaTurbo Avedon themself is an artistic project about fluid identity in virtual space. It might be one very private person or a team pulling the levers, but without any way to know for sure, you’re forced to ask yourself why their identity matters, or if it matters. 

As A.I. makes it easier to digitally clone yourself, at the same time that the metaverse and virtual worlds gain popularity, identity is less concrete than it’s ever been. Online personas are nothing new, but it’s hard to get people to call you by your screen name IRL and character outfits just don’t get the same reaction on the streets that they do on the servers. 

Exhibition view, La Turbo Avedon. Pardon Our Dust 
MAK – Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna, 2022
© kunst-dokumentation.com/MAK

Increasingly though, new virtual and augmented reality hardware is expanding what’s possible in the digital realm. Those with insecurities about their physical body or bodies that don’t match their gender can choose to spend more time than ever in the identity that they create rather than the one they were were assigned. 

Yet, in “Pardon Our Dust,”  LaTurbo Avedon challenges us to think critically about what we might sacrifice by forsaking the physical for virtual. Their installation leads the participant through a narration and virtual simulation of abandoned digital landscapes in various stages of construction and deconstruction. Playing on “Pardon Our Dust,” a reference to early 2000’s websites under construction, LaTurbo Avedon’s piece contemplates the next generation of the internet – Web3 – and the alleged decentralization of digital environments promised by the crypto community. 

It’s like properties on the seaside, there’s hardly any space left where you can just go and enjoy what is actually a common good. If you privatize every website, every space there is, how can creativity thrive?”

Marlies Wirth

Some of the virtual spaces we’re starting to see seem like digital utopias, but if you ask Marlies, a utopia is just a dystopia in disguise. Much like the protagonists of culture’s most infamous “utopia” fantasies, she wonders whether creative and expressive freedom is truly possible in commercialized virtual spaces. 

Posters, UNCANNY VALUES. Artificial Intelligence & You
MAK – Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna, 2019
© Process – Studio for Art and Design 
Process – Studio for Art and Design, AImoji, 2019
AI generated emoji using a DCGAN for deep learning

The Uncanny Valley: Human Likeness Refracted Through Tech

The uncanny valley is a design hypothesis from a Japanese roboticist who observed that humans seem more fond of objects that look more like us, but only up to a certain point where the resemblance starts feeling eerie. Marlies calls it a “dent in our trust” caused by anything designed to mimic us, from a mask to an LLM. The uncanny valley comes up in the context of future A.I. and the hypothetical day where A.I.-powered interfaces become indistinguishable from human interaction.  

In 2019, Marlies and media theorist Paul Feigelfeld played on this concept in their exhibition, “Uncanny Values.” 

“It’s such an interesting concept of how humans try to convey a very complex thing that is body language and emotional display during conversation, and sometimes more successfully than other times in these emojis.”

Marlies Writh

As part of the exhibit, a collection of unique A.I. emojis, or AImojis, were developed by feeding a dataset of existing emojis through an early A.I. model and asking it to generate new ones. This was done in collaboration with Process Studio, whose co-founders Martin Grödl and Moritz Resl were guests on Creativity Squared in Episode 32 titled Are Machines Creative?

The results were “rather disturbing” in Marlies’ words, but the AImojis developed an audience and are available in the app stores for download. The AImojis are open for interpretation, but if nothing else they show the unintended consequences of asking A.I. to draw its own conclusions from our collective data without the full context. 

“Uncanny Values” includes three pieces about bias in A.I. training data, inspired by the idea that our human understanding of ethics and morals can be uncanny when it devalues humanity and justifies injustice. Throughout history, those different understandings have led to catastrophes and advancements that A.I. knows about but may not have the social context to fully grasp, especially when it has to make decisions. We see the effects of what Marlies calls “corrupted human data” in algorithms that disproportionately identify people of color as crime suspects, or in stereotype-based advertising. 

Exhibition view, UNCANNY VALUES. Artificial Intelligence & You
MAK – Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna, 2019
© MAK/Kristina Wissik
Heather Dewey-Hagborg and Chelsea E. Manning, Probably Chelsea, 2017
Installation, 30 portraits designed using custom software that analyzed samples of Chelsea Manning’s DNA
Courtesy of the artists and Iliya Fridman Gallery New York

The exhibit’s entry piece explored this bias through biology, appearance, and gender in Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s “Radical Love: Chelsea Manning.” The installation features a collection of images of similar-looking faces based on the DNA of Chelsea Manning, the former soldier who spent seven years in jail for leaking military documents. 

Using an A.I. tool trained on the DNA and corresponding faces of thousands of people, Dewey-Hagborg prompted the model to generate multiple permutations of what Manning might look like based on her DNA. Of course, none of the images managed to capture the real Manning, who underwent gender confirmation surgery in 2018. Somehow, even with all of the genetic information you’d need to build Manning from scratch, the A.I. loses something in translation that renders the output uncanny, close but not quite right. However, Marlies reminds us, it proves that the idea is possible. Undoubtedly somebody is going through a lot of artificial tears trying to span that uncanny valley. 

Exhibition view, /imagine: A Journey into The New Virtual
MAK – Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna, 2023
© kunst-dokumentation.com/MAK
Lee Pivnik, Symbiotic House, since 2022
Installation, Midjourney Images, Video 9:00 min., magazines
Leah Wulfman, My Mid Journey Trash Pile. 2022
Installation, Midjourney Images, oil paintings

Curating Our Digital Future

Looking ahead, Marlies says she and the MAK are excited about the advancements in immersive reality simulations. Their department is actively exploring ways to incorporate more virtual and augmented reality components. She sees promise for the technology to bring the museum to distant patrons, and offer the opportunity to interact with digital replicas of artifacts too fragile to display in reality. The virtual realm has its limits, though, as nothing compares to being inside the Viennese institution itself. 

In the bigger picture, she’s interested to see how our new technology will turn around to change us. Like the way the iPhone turned everyone into photographers and digital socialites with the onset of social media, she’s looking out for the ways that LLMs and our ventures with emerging digital technologies will shape us individually and collectively. 

Marlies encourages listeners to see /imagine: A Journey into The New Virtual, an online collection of digital realms exploring the social, ecological, political, and infrastructural considerations of virtual space. In Vienna, the MAK is hosting “edging,” a solo exhibition from Hong Kong-based animator, Wong Ping, whose colorful animations humorously reflect on the complexities of 21st century society. 

Links Mentioned in this Podcast

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Thank you, Marlies, for being our guest on Creativity Squared. 

This show is produced and made possible by the team at PLAY Audio Agency: https://playaudioagency.com.  

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