The ethical issues surrounding “intelligent” machines have been an area of discussion among artists since before artificial intelligence (AI) even existed. With technology enjoying a boom today, the question of what might be “good” or “bad” AI is more topical and complex than ever. However, big tech industries and start-ups continue to be driven by a focus on profit and the general hype surrounding AI. A handful of companies are designing and structuring the technology and deploying AI on a global scale. In early 2023 came the first call for a moratorium, actually proposed by representatives of the tech industry, who suggested suspending the global race to develop AI – as manifested in the chatbot ChatGPT-4 – to allow a risk assessment to be carried out. While this might also be part of a marketing strategy – which will become clear over time – the dangers of AI have long been known: these include discrimination and bias, misuse of data, surveillance and asymmetries of power, the manipulation of public opinion, cyberwars and the struggle for climate justice.
The ethical debate on technology is invariably linked to questions of what makes us human and how we want to live. To which we might add the question, whose ethics and morals are we talking about? The underlying visions of the technology are grounded in the ideas, and shaped by the perspective, of a very small, homogeneous group: a tech elite located in just a few cities around the world. Their technologies impinge on the world in ways that principally benefit the governments, institutions and companies for which they were designed. In 2022, for example, the company OpenAI sought to configure ChatGPT so that it would be less toxic and therefore more ethical by hiring workers from Kenya to label text extracts from the Internet as racist, sexist and violent, thus “teaching” the AI to filter such content out. While much is made of the efficiency of the systems, the precarious labour structures on which this efficiency is based are kept hidden from view.
Since 2019, the JUNGE AKADEMIE at the Akademie der Künste, Berlin, launched various artistic programmes to examine questions related to living with “intelligent” machines. The focus here is not so much on looking for artistic innovations that improve existing systems and make them more ethical but rather on giving visibility to the social, historical, cultural and political realities and forces that have given rise to AI and help, in turn, to shape it. As Kate Crawford writes in Atlas of AI (2021), one of the biggest myths in the AI industry is that intelligence has an independent existence, although the concept of a superior intelligence has been doing untold damage for centuries. Here too, AI is not seen as a purely technical domain. According to Crawford, AI is neither artificial nor intelligent but rather “both embodied and material, made from natural resources, fuel, human labor, infrastructures, logistics, histories, and classifications”. In this respect, the question of ethical AI cannot be answered simply by opening up the black box of AI and making the technological developments behind it transparent, because the technology is part of a web involving a multitude of interconnected systems of (colonial) power.
As part of the exhibition Broken Machines & Wild Imaginings, the JUNGE AKADEMIE has invited ten artists to develop their own ideas, narratives and approaches in response to a world in which AI technologies are ubiquitous, challenging the Western cultural imagination and history of progress and calling into question problematic dualisms such as “natural” and “artificial”. By dealing with concepts in aesthetic terms, simulating scenarios and speculating on alternative futures, the arts are developing – in the context of the emergence of AI – their own aesthetic knowledge for investigating urgent issues in contemporary societies and the planet as a whole. In response to the fragile reality of machines and their extractivist logic, algorithmic violence and techno-solutionism, the artists are creating their own poetic worlds and strategies of repair. They are developing alternative paradigms, historical narratives and ideas of AI, focusing on experiences, values and histories that have not (as yet) been given a hearing in AI development.
The title of the exhibition is loosely inspired by Sarah Sharma’s feminist Manifesto for the Broken Machine (2020). Here, broken technologies are voices of resistance, a cause of friction in the tech elite’s machine-like system. “Broken machines” develop a disruptive power as a result. They act as sources feeding new dynamics and untamed imaginations and even fostering alternative or even anarchic forms of care and community. However, the artistic works are their own frame of reference and draw on a wide range of theoretical and fictional texts dating from the period since the early twentieth century, thus expanding the temporal and geographical frame.
Theoretical and poetic takes on colonialism, racism and technology – including works by Louis Chude-Sokei, Sylvia Wynter and Denise Ferreira da Silva – generate new readings of cybertheory and posthumanism. Techno-feminist approaches by Donna Haraway and Helen Hester and texts on eroticism and spirituality by Audre Lorde and others offer resources and impetus for aesthetic counter-projects. Criticisms of the idea of intelligence, as articulated, for example, by Reza Negarestani, make an appearance in the conceptual mappings, as do early works of science fiction by Mary Shelley and Stanisław Lem.
The work of artist Natasha Tontey connects a spirit of care with a long overdue respect for indigenous principles, values and ideas of technology. The artist encourages us to examine our beliefs about what is primitive, modern, irrational or rational and to encounter spiritual beings and chimeric figures in the chaotic ritual spaces of her ancestors, who can heal us, show us new ways of being and thus redefine the limits of our existence.
Sahej Rahal’s cybernetic chimeras (composite creatures) lead us to a “machinic” sensorium with labile, directionless bodies – a counter-mythology to India’s hierarchical caste system. Aimless wanderings through the landscapes inhabited by AI creatures reveal a glimpse of futures that are not yet (im)possible.
The artist duo D’Andrade and Walla Capellobo take the egalitarian philosophy of life espoused by Brazilian quilombismo as their starting point for a collective play that is both ultra-poetic and opaque. Working with a group of Latin American artists and musicians, they discuss black technopoetics and Afrofuturism in the context of AI. Music and sound, magical thinking and artistic archival practice are used to express speculative community building and other forms of knowledge.
The composer and sound artist Pedro Oliveira focuses on a decolonial and material analysis of technologies like dialect recognition software, which was introduced by the German migration authorities in 2017 for use with undocumented asylum seekers. His artistic research leads him back into the history of hearing and the technological developments in Germany associated with this. He asks, for example, when creative processes first devolved into technologies of oppression and surveillance. The question appears in the exhibition space in the form of a GDR-era synthesiser that has the same filter as the software.
Artist Aarti Sunder examines the complex dependencies and materiality of technologies by looking at deep-sea cables, which can be read in historical terms as conduits of colonial power: fibre-optic cables follow the same pathways as telegraph cables, which in turn followed the routes taken by slave ships. Conceived as a fictional, narrative and investigative work, Sunder maps the ecosystem of cables with the help of the multiple histories and temporalities of human and non-human life to come to an alternative understanding of critical infrastructure.
Materiality and temporality are also key elements in the work of Tin Wilke and Laura Fong Prosper: the artists look at phenomena like the degrowth movement, which advocates a reduction in the volume of consumption and production as a means to achieve greater social justice and environmental sustainability. A historical film archive that presents the deployment of industrial technologies in the mining of natural resources as a story of progress is reinterpreted using neural networks. Possible paths toward sustainable futures built from the ruins of the Anthropocene are visualised and given concrete form on screens made of biodegradable materials.
Artist and scientist Sarah Ciston challenges the fascination that AI exerts with its constant stream of new improved technologies like ChatGPT-4: she uses a meditative labyrinth she made with her own hands to take us back to an awareness of what scale and size mean in the context of AI. Her work sets the visible traces of human labour and embodied knowledge in opposition to the hype of AI.
Petja Ivanova puts an ethics of pleasure at the heart of her collaborative, cyberfeminist work, which focuses on taboos surrounding female sexuality. How can the broken relationship between the body and technology be repaired through queer and experimental computing? Metaphorical weather landscapes, sensors and data streams composed of body fluids resist the essentialist views of gender underpinning the developments contrived by technology companies, which monetise the data of stylised female bodies.
Sara Culmann’s work combines fragments from Ted Talks, science fiction, games and chat rooms to create a dark, grotesque narrative centred on AI-based humans and their developers. Still influenced by racist and sexist ideologies and language, the industry develops anthropomorphic machines for which ethical frameworks are no longer valid.
The idea that the use of AI can lead to a more democratic, fairer society because it is neutral has now been disproved. But what happens when an old utopian model of society like that of the cosmists – who envisaged humanity conquering the cosmos and uniting in spirit – is resuscitated by AI? The artist duo SONDER (Anton & Peter) presents, as the final stage of the sharing economy, a fictive start-up that helps users achieve digital immortality after they die by means of a shared data pool of memories.
Broken Machines & Wild Imaginings should not be regarded just as a self-contained exhibition; it also provides an insight into various artistic fields of research in which the ambiguities in AI discourses are being renegotiated on an ongoing basis. What can artists contribute to the discussion and what do they want to contribute? What values do they call attention to? What languages and aesthetics still remain?
The AI Anarchies Autumn School took place from 13th to 20th of October 2022 at Akademie der Künste, Berlin, Hanseatenweg 10 and was curated by Maya Indira Ganesh and Nora N. Khan.
The transdisciplinary Autumn School AI Anarchies brought together global communities of artists, scholars, cultural producers and culture hackers, technologists, and activists. It focuesed on creating new modes of feeling, thinking and relating to the topic of AI Ethics. Through talks, performances, screenings, and participatory workshops, attendees were asked asked to contribute to collective discussion about AI technologies and the social, cultural, and political realities they emerge from and shape.
In their book The Classroom is Burning, Let’s Dream about a School of Improper Education (2020), the Kunci Study Forum & Collective from Yogyakarta, Indonesia, write of their interpretation of study, a concept theorized by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney. They deploy study through improper speculative research. They think together in the classroom to create a forum for social change. Inspired by their vision and practice, the AI Anarchies Autumn School hopes to channel their spirit of “improper learning” to the consideration of AI.
We first take up AI Ethics as a catalyst for such study. For all the big dreams of what AI could have been, human relations abstracted through AI remain awfully small. We know this from how easy it is to confuse a driverless test car, or when hate speech and dog whistles remain blithely undetected by natural language processing models. AI Ethics can feel like Big Tech’s half hearted promise to self-regulate, while maintaining the steady course into a future it has designed. All the while, machine learning systems are nurtured to scale. Correcting AI’s harms has become a mantra, a drum to beat publicly; the work of correction is taken up, predictably, by the communities of people most likely to be affected. We’re nudged to choose, read, and consume as strongly suggested. Our intellectual and cultural labor are extracted by them with ease. We live in a mirrored funhouse, cannibalized by and feasting upon our own preferences.
In this context, “Ethics in AI” means a correcting course for human action, narrowly conceived and steadily bent toward the fulfillment of computational tasks. We’re managed down into a relation with small, engineered, machine worlds, abstracted from the mess of our lived reality and ethics. We know – from the arts, from philosophy – that ethics is a relationship, and politics a manifestation of those relationships in multiple forms. No one person, discipline, or community alone can speak to “ethics” – and there are no ethics without a situation in place, time, and body. The site of ethics is not only in the individual. Ethics is a matter of relation to others, and negotiating that relation, that bond, that connection, to people beyond oneself.
Even as the world turns and burns, resistance and refusal of past, present, and future hegemonies flower. Even as global, planetary crises unfold through legacies of state, industrial, and algorithmic hegemonies, there is still space for delight and intellectual joy. Our collective and personal selves are constituted through and riven by digital logics, sitting atop long histories of violence. We still try to explore what it might mean to live ethically with technology now. We still make art, write and think in a world commandeered by technological design.
The JUNGE AKADEMIE’s Autumn School will offer spaces, ideas, and methods to determine what escapes relentless computability. What still slips through? How can an anarchic AI – and an embrace of what’s anarchic in AI – turn us to new possibilities for the design of future algorithmic spaces, and life alongside and within them? “Anarchies,” here, are not to be confused with “default opposites” of what we know and have at play, meaning, they are not anti-AI or anti-computation. They are values and ideas that render the familiar unthinkable. They simulate all the ways our current conditions of technology, geopolitics, and markets are incompatible with collective thriving. Anarchies transform conventional ambitions and moralities into their inverses. They spell the end of established patterns of knowing and relating. AI Anarchies might have rhythms and gestures that simply choose not to foreground AI and its logics. They purposefully stimulate overlaps of refusal and repair, no-futurisms and neo-Luddisms, decoloniality and feminism, degrowth and fugitivity, and abolitionist, anti-caste politics.
Over the course of one week, we will bring together creative practitioners of all kinds – artists, writers, activists, cultural theorists – to (un)think the ambitions, imaginaries, and infrastructures that AI currently inhabits and shapes. We take up AI as a philosophical and creative provocation. This allows us to take stock of and refresh our relationships to each other, and to our past and future selves. We want to create a space to consider AI as a prompt to abandon positive and positivist visions of the future, for necessary disregard, for meaningful resistance in a time of an overdetermined computational life. By consciously moving beyond a re-statement of the status quo of solutions, of solutionist discourse, we insist on undoing our own positions. We take claims to expertise lightly. We emphasize that everything that is valued can lose its value overnight. AI fails. The AI spring turns into another AI winter. To entertain fantasies of such failure in a school setting is anarchic. We hope to turn away from focusing solely on what an ethical AI should be, and turn to the anarchic, strange, and improper AIs we also might dream of.
The JUNGE AKADEMIE’s AI Anarchies Autumn School will foreground hard conversations, nurture alliances, and spark modes of feeling and relating across practitioner and intellectual communities. While remaining fully immersed in the social and political contexts generated prior to and by AI, the School looks to discursive, experimental schools and styles of pedagogy that were relatively anarchic. It takes up as its model the schools that questioned the dominant models of teaching in their time.
The School brings together global communities of artists, scholars, cultural producers and culture hackers, technologists, and activists. It takes up contemporary “AI Ethics” as a catalyst to seed new modes of feeling, thinking, and relating. Through talks, performances, screenings, and participatory workshops, attendees will be asked to contribute to collective discussion about AI technologies and the social, cultural, and political realities they emerge from and shape.
The School will be organised in relation to three parts of the day: provocative morning debates in which leading thinkers publicly develop new positions; afternoon workshops as a collective practice of propositions, a way of conducting research with one another; followed by evening performances, lectures, and screenings in which the day’s conversations unravel toward new, sideways reflections. Workshop registration for the study group is closed.
“AI Anarchies” focuses on “Artificial Intelligence & Ethics”. It consists of a fellowship programme for six artists with residencies at the ZK/U – Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik, Berlin and a transdisciplinary Autumn School. The programme – made up of D’Andrade and Walla Capelobo, Sarah Ciston, Pedro Oliveira, Sara Culmann, SONDER (Peter Behrbohm and Anton Steenbock), and Aarti Sunder – concludes with the exhibition Broken Machines & Wild Imaginings to showcase the fellows’ final presentation projects. The jury for the proposals: Rosa Barba (artist and member of the Visual Arts Section, Akademie der Künste, Berlin), Oulimata Gueye (curator and art critic), Philip Horst (artist and co-director of ZK/U Berlin), Jason Edward Lewis (co-director of the Indigenous Futures Research Centre, Concordia University, Montreal), Jennifer Walshe (professor of composition, artist, member of the Music Section, Akademie der Künste, Berlin), Li Zhenhua (independent curator).
The AI Anarchies programme is accompanied by a scholarly, artistic advisory board: Nora O Murchú, Nishant Shah, Jennifer Walshe, and Siegfried Zielinski.
Artists have been discussing and predicting the ethical problems of “intelligent” machines since long before artificial intelligence existed. Amid today’s technology boom, questions on what is “good” or “bad” AI are ever more present and increasingly complex.
Companies and governments worldwide have established rules and self-commitments for trustworthy, unbiased, or responsible AI to build fairness and transparency into their systems. While it is necessary to address the potential harm of accelerated AI expansion, it is also true that these normative principles of AI ethics reduce space for civic action, resistance, and critique. “Counter AI” experiments in science and the arts are opportunities to disrupt notions of ownership, agency, and regulation from outside conventional power centres.
“AI Anarchies” called for proposals from artists in any field who work with AI as a topic and/or AI technologies in the broadest sense. The project seeks artists contributing to the debate on AI and ethics through conceptual and aesthetically compelling forms. AI Anarchies invites artistic, speculative, and/or technical practices and interventions that articulate and challenge approaches to power and ethics in the emergence of AI. It proposes artistic resistance through subjective and political actions and creative acts.
Since 2019, the JUNGE AKADEMIE has awarded four fellowships related to this subject. The artists chosen – Sahej Rahal, Natasha Tontey, Peta Ivanova, and the artist duo Tin Wilke and Laura Fong Prosper – present their associated works in the exhibition Broken Machines & Wild Imaginings. The jurors from 2019–22 were Inke Arns (director/curator, Hardware MedienKunstVerein), Anna Fricke (curator, Museum Folkwang), Johannes Odenthal (former programme director, Akademie der Künste, Berlin), Adrian Piper (artist and member of the Visual Arts Section, Akademie der Künste, Berlin), Harald Welzer (sociologist, FUTURZWEI foundation), Siegfried Zielinski (professor of media theory at the Berlin University of the Arts and member of the Visual Arts Section, Akademie der Künste, Berlin).
The complex relationship between humans and machines has been the subject of art and artistic practice since the beginning of the Industrial Age. Parallel with digitalisation, the topic has taken on new meaning worldwide, with particular emphasis on artificial intelligence, its possibilities and dark sides. Against this background, fundamental philosophical, economic, ecological and ethical concepts, as well as images of the world we live in, are being questioned by new human-machine interfaces.
The arts can generate specific aesthetic expertise in this area by discussing concepts, playing out scenarios and speculating on futures. Dystopic fiction around omniscient and sentient machines that turn against humans, develop desires, and seek freedom, and fantasies about human immortality, dominate Western cultural imagination.
The Human-Machine programme funds international (emerging) artists in all artistic disciplines who work with or address ideas surrounding digital technologies and artificial intelligence in the broadest sense. It fosters those who challenge Western notions about progress and problematic dualisms of “natural” and “artificial”, who offer new ideas, thought processes, narrations and approaches to a world with machines and who explore urgent aspects of today’s societies and the planet.
Since 2022, the focus has been more on questions of sustainability and climate change in digital technologies and artificial intelligence. The programme continues in 2023 and 2024 with residencies at E-WERK Luckenwalde and the JUNGE AKADEMIE of the Akademie der Künste, Berlin.