There’s a well-shared story about the early days of television. The technology to capture moving images was becoming more available. Where to point the camera remained a bit of an open question. Radio was the de facto medium for broadcasting stories and so they turned the cameras on how radio programs were produced, and we got grainy, black and white moving images of people standing in a studio reading their scripts. Actors spoke into mics and offered awkward glances toward this new intruder into their space. Obviously, this was not the best use of the tool, but the lack of other options limited the creative possibilities. Reality television was still decades away.
I find this story useful because it speaks to the conceptual valley we are currently navigating. Forms of storytelling go through a period of experimentation in order to test out the best uses for new technologies.
Artificial intelligence is a powerful tool. For the most part, this power has been directed at problems identified by legacy institutions as necessary and important. For a corporation this might be efficiency or growth. For a government, this might be administration of services or increasing certainty in complex and messy systems. Of course, AI can be directed at any number of potential challenges and the work right now is to figure out applications that make sense given the state of AI and the possibilities it suggests.
It would be a remarkable coincidence if the artistic forms that flourish under AI in any way resemble the artistic forms that we have come to know over the past century. This isn’t to say that dance or theater or literature will go away, but rather new combinations and integrations will evolve that re-imagine not just the content that is possible but also the form that this content takes.
China is developing AI-driven holographic avatars that are being applied to book authors or popular characters to interact with audiences and readers while providing individualized experiences. Holographic newscasters are already in the world. Augmented and virtual reality are leveraging AI in ways that support generative, real-time adjustment to user needs. And we are still in the early days.
Devising new forms for cultural production is a central activity at Ferment AI. We’ve already seen how the elevation of Western tastes has created obstacles for non-Western culturally specific practices. A multi-month residency led by Nagata Shachu Taiko Ensemble and UKAI Projects allowed for 11 storytellers and performers from a range of cultural traditions to imagine the process of translating the best of those traditions into new digital containers and formats. Central Asian calligraphy was reimagined in the context of augmented reality. South Asian dance transformed gesture into narrative elements in real time through your computer’s camera. Taiko was experienced through a haptic feedback suit that gave audiences the felt experience of the drum.
The opportunities are immense, and innovation is happening whether we’re ready for it or not. The ability to automate decisions while integrating robotics and complex sensors creates a vast space for experimentation. Because the sector is emerging, many organizations prioritize institutional interests, but by freeing up resources and expertise, there exists a real potential to inform the development of a broader field. In the past, our imaginaries were limited by the stories and forms with which we were familiar. Global connectivity greatly extends the raw materials we have to draw upon and to be inspired by.
Personally, I am fascinated by analog games, and how they can be frameworks of incompleteness. I am interested in how algorithmic language models come to embody ‘official ideologies’ and how real-world games might become sites of interaction with those ideologies and opportunities to surface and animate new stories and rituals about the world. Most games being developed with AI are commercially oriented and favor digital distribution. How might our understanding of real-world games be transformed by AI? How might the assumptions burned into language models become ingredients in how games are played?
Some of these changes will be unpleasant. My recent reading into blockchain gaming revealed a base of players rendered unemployed by COVID-19 in the Philipines grinding away to earn a subsistence living. Other examples suggest more optimism, such as the DAOs and artist collectives organizing to support their communities and to facilitate mutual aid and mutual benefit. Who benefits and who pays remains a central question.
Just like blockchain technologies, we are likely to see an explosion in experimentation around how AI might contribute to realizing artistic intentions and no one knows what will happen next. Perhaps it will be intelligent holograms driving a story while selling us cola. Perhaps it will be something that draws us back to the world and to our bodies.
Probably it will involve both, and I am excited about the process of imagining what is possible. By prototyping we allow others an experience of something new so that they might then contribute their own efforts to taking this technology in a direction that fits with the values they hold and the world they want to live in. The stories we tell have survived the transition to new forms and new techniques before, but only when we ensure their preservation and take an active hand in the assumptions that drive these developments.
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Can a Crocodile Run a Steeplechase? with John Fass
Our abilities to talk about and understand complex technologies often depends on how good we are at deploying and entailing metaphors that reach across disciplines. To analyse, critique, explain, and explore computational machines is doubly difficult because they do not assume any consensual outward form. Images of data centres and transatlantic cables don’t do much to reveal the social and systemic effects of, say, algorithmic decision making or the widespread and rapid reshaping of norms in jurisprudence, finance and healthcare. Nora Vaage has noticed the use of machine metaphors in biology, and Maya Ganesh has noted that metaphors ‘tame’ the unknown technical real of AI, allowing us to imagine. In this session we will explore the politics of computational metaphors from the perspective of the colonised imagination. In the words of Gianpiero Petriglieri “we sense too little and can’t imagine enough”.
John Fass has been working as a designer for thirty years and a teacher for ten. His work as a designer covers diverse fields such as healthcare, engineering and music. John holds a PhD in Communication Design from the Royal College of Art, he is a course leader at LCC (UAL), and a lecturer at Royal College of Art.