In search of the present (of Ai-art) in EMMA

During the Christmas break I paid a visit to the the latest In search of the present exhibitions at EMMA Espoo Museum of Modern Art in Finland. Visiting the museum on a dark and rainy Friday afternoon, just before Christmas eve and barely an hour before the museum closed, did not do justice to the exhibition at all, but I was still glad to get a quick, inspiring reminder of what has been happening in this fast-paced area of creativity in the recent years.

Many of the works in the exhibition, unsurprisingly, used or reflected upon the use Ai in art and in society, but also the thresholds between nature, art and technology in more general terms. Included were works that one could perhaps already start calling “classics” of Ai art by Refik Anadol, Anna Riedler and Sougwen Chung, as well as by Nordic artists such as Jakob Kudsk Steensen and Jenna Sutela, among others.

I had not previously seen Anadol’s AI Data Sculptures in their impressive real-life size. It was hard to not be mesmerized by the massive presence of the moving and morphing stream of colourful, visually stunning particles moving across the screen that seemed simultaenously flat and three-dimensional. The deeper moments of reflection, however, took place at the encounters with the physically smaller and visually quieter artworks, such as Jenna Sutela’s interspecies language in nimiia cétiï that for once leaves the human outside of a dialogue, or Stephanie Dinkins’ conversant sculpture Not the Only One. The later recounts the narrative histories of black American families, while adorably masking the glitches of the system as quirky personality characteristics of the talking sculpture face. The work demonstrates very tangibly how making the data personal or personified adds another dimension to it, and this is especially poignant in the case of marginalised or completely missing data of race and (female) ageing.

I hate to admit but Anna Riedler’s tulip project was one of the works that I was expecting to just quickly pass by, as I had seen so many moving and static variations of the tulip images online that I did not expect to find anything new there. To my surprise, however, this was one of the works that kept coming back to my mind for weeks after the exhibition. The sheer manual labor so unescapably visible in the data item cards of Myriad (Tulips) was a painful reminder of the actual human hands that have worked for free or for minimal compensation to create the massive datasets that are now routinely used in developing and running an ever-expanding spectrum of Ai-applications, both creative and others. The parallellisms between the tulip mania of the 1630s Netherlands and crypto currencies – or perhaps the current Ai hype – are hard to miss. But the endless tables of tulips also reminded me of the classic iris species classification tasks that anyone studying the basics of supervised machine learning starts their journey with. This brought the work close both to the natural/unnatural history of tulips and the history of digital/undigital data, and even further to the age-old efforts of trying to control and contain the unruly world through dutiful classifications.

Thinking of all of this, it started to seem that as much as data is zeros and ones, there is also something akin to the gentle labor of gardening in the way those binary bits of data are nurtured and curated into beautiful and provoking works of art. Perhaps this care-ful perspective of a gardener is the one we should strive to adopt to make future creative-Ai more responsible both for us humans and for the nature at large.

– Anna-Kaisa