Artfully observing the Internet & AI

A genuinely fascinating seminar at Lancaster University’s Digital Science Institute on 27 October 2017, given by Anna Munster from University of New South Wales, raised new questions for me about how artists interrogate digital phenomena. For some reason, this hadn’t struck me as so interesting before, but Anna’s interpretation of a series of carefully selected works expertly showed how art, and our responses to it, can inform a complex feeling for digital technologies that embraces and explores the qualities of ambiguity, obscurity and impenetrability that they often present: a refreshing freedom from the aims of scholarly analysis to clarify, explicate and build theories.

The talk started with a discussion of the video work, Farm (Pryor Creek, Oklahoma) by artist John Gerrard: a digitally simulated but realistic ‘film’ that pans around the outside of a Google data centre in the US. Anna then talked through another video work, Polymorphism by Kynan Tan: also a simulation of a data centre but this time ‘taken’ from inside. She concluded with Conversation Theory by Monica Monin, an installation that pitches two AI ‘agents’ in conversation, each interpreting and responding to the other, through cameras, a TV screen and a different set of rules and databases.

Each step through this collection seemed to take us closer to the digital processing of data itself: from the ‘view’ of the outside of a data centre, to that inside it, to observing an emergent ‘conversation’ achieved through algorithmic processing. And in contrast to what I was expecting from the seminar – an explanation of how art can help us to better understand the what AI and data processes are ‘upto’ – I was struck by how each work still leaves the viewer ‘outside’. These digital manifestations remain obscure, opaque, unknowable. In the conversation, we are shown only the outputs and inputs, not how these are produced. With the data centres, we are shown the outsides of a large black box and its insides: more black boxes.

As Anna described, the works present and play with the observable in ways that lead us to ask ‘why can’t I see more’. In the case of John Gerrard and Kynan Tan’s videos, we are ‘shown’ the physicality of internet. This is what it looks like. But at the same time they render it strange, letting us ask ‘so what’ but not providing any easy answers. There is no easy position to ‘see’ these depictions of data centres. There is nothing to be known. That is, at least part of, the point. And isn’t that fantastic, when it is intended and achieved well?

For academic work taking a similar interest in detailing and locating the otherwise unknown and unseen physicality of the internet in cities and across remote locations such a conclusion, purpose or outcome is not so acceptable: even if experiments and other ways of communicating scholarly ideas are welcomed.

Art then – together with discussants, like Anna, who are experienced in ways of thinking and seeing with it – offers an alternative way of critically interrogating ‘the digital’. Of course it does, right? But this talk has helped to open my eyes to the sophistication and complexity of ideas, the kind of sensibility, this could help to foster.

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