The World Without Us: Narratives on the age of non-human actors / Interview with Inke Arns

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Inke Arns že od leta 1993 deluje kot kuratorica, piska in teoretičarka, ki se posveča medijski umetnosti in spletni kulturi, od leta 2005 pa je zaposlena kot direktorica institucije Hartware MedienKunstVerein v Dortmundu. V Sloveniji je nemara najbolje poznana po svoji doktorski tezi in kot avtorica monografije »Avantgarda v vzvratnem ogledalu«, v katerih se je osredotočila na spremembo paradigem recepcije zgodovinske avantgarde v vizualni in medijski umetnosti nekdanje Jugoslavije in Rusije v 80. in 90. letih.

Z dr. Inke Arns smo se pogovarjali dan po otvoritvi razstave, ki jo je kurirala v ljubljanski galeriji Vžigalica in jo pospremila tudi s predotvoritvenim predavanjem v Mestnem muzeju. Razstava Svet brez nas: zgodbe o dobi nečloveških akterjev predstavlja izbor umetniških del iz dveh predhodnih razstav: Svet brez nas, ki je bila leta 2016 na ogled v dortmundski Hartware MedienKunstVerein, in pa razstave Tuja snov, ki se je odvila v sklopu letošnjega festivala transmediale v Berlinu.

 (Andrej Škufca in Tjaša Pogačar)


A&T: Maybe we can start with the difference between the exhibition Alien Matter you curated for the transmediale festival (HKW Berlin, 2017) and The World Without Us at HMKV (Dortmund, 2016/17) …

I: The funny thing is that The World Without Us was made first, was conceived much earlier than the exhibition Alien Matter, but somehow Alien Matter comes before The World Without Us, logically speaking. At the moment, we are creating a lot of alien matter all around us, technology that is getting into a very intense relationship with matter, or artificial intelligence with matter, or algorithms with matter, and this is actually the pre-condition, these are the actors of the world without us … (mobile phone buzzing) Like this one that just made a noise.

A&T: It seems that some kind of a presupposition of human–non-human division must exist in order to think matter as alien. How do the artworks that are presented in the exhibition articulate this relation? Because, obviously, there is no clear cut between human and non-human if we think about matter that is becoming also, probably, biotechnologically alienated or artificial. Furthermore, we can think about matter as alien or the world as non-human even before humans existed, in a sense human biology is also not necessarily »human«. All of this brings us to the question of this division. Could you maybe say a few words about how these works address it in the exhibition?

I: In a more general sense, you are absolutely right in saying that this border between human and non-human is becoming more and more porous, which also has to do with machines or computers becoming smaller and smaller. They are getting closer and closer to our own bodies, they are even entering our bodies. At times, it is becoming quite difficult to say where does the human end and where does the so-called non-human begin. Or we could see this as some kind of a symbiosis. One work in the exhibition by Sidsel Meineche Hansen is looking at the effects, let’s say the altering effects of chemical drugs on the human body. If you follow the narration of the video, you can easily imagine how these drugs could also be nanomachines, how they could nullify the previously relatively clear border between what we thought as human and something outside completely. This work addresses these things very clearly; the chemicals or drugs or machines enter the body and then kind of dissolve it from within.

A&T: As the art field is obviously human-centered and art is made for humans, we wonder how can art address this alienness of matter or how it may be challenged by the increasing participation of alien or non-human actors?

I: I think that’s a very good question. Art is. of course, a very, very human concept. The question whether machines need art or can make art, or whether it makes any sense to talk about art in that context still remains to be answered ;-). In the exhibition there’s one work by Nicolas Naigret and Maria Roszkowska, for example, who made a predictive art bot. It’s supposedly an algorithm or a bot that is able to predict future art trends and develop concepts for them. How does it do that? It reaches out into discussions about contemporary art and uses this as big data from which it tries to recognize patterns and extrapolate what it recognizes into the future. This is really how prediction and extrapolation works, it’s quite simple, not something to wonder about. And the artists themselves, they say that sometimes this prediction bot, he or it or she, proposes things that they would never have come across, ideas that would never have occurred to them, and that they are frequently surprised by this bot.

You might have noticed that the subtitle of the exhibition reads “Narratives on the Age of Non-Human Actors”. I think there’s a lot of really good storytellers in the exhibition and that’s something I find very important. It’s not only about creating or let’s say visualizing certain issues, but really also about narrating and storytelling. Suzanne Treister is one of the big superheroes in that sense. When we had a guided tour with her in Alien Matter, people listened to her for one hour and at the end, they were asking: »But this Hillel Fischer Traumberg, whow, where is he living now?« I mean to say that they really got into that story, that’s why I’m always saying that it’s a fictional character; she invented that fictional character and from then on the whole story developed. I like to think of artists who deal with these topics in such a way as storytellers of the information age, or of the digital age.

A&T: A few years ago, Peter Weibel made the exhibition Exo-Evolution, where the focus seemed to be on technology as an externalization of existing human capabilities and the exo-evolution was supposedly some kind of a human-controlled evolution exterior to humans, whereas the exhibition The World Without Us of course has a completely different perspective because there are no humans to control the evolution, or the latter might be bypassing us. Do artists choose narration and storytelling because we cannot really act in a world where we do not exist?

I: You’re touching upon something very important because when we discussed with transmediale what kind of an exhibition to do for this special transmediale 30-year anniversary, I had the idea of actually making something like The World Without Us. However, there obviously was a problem because if we entitle an exhibition The World Without Us, where does it leave human agency, where does it leave any possibility to act? And that’s obviously a big question; actually, it is the exact same question that I’m addressing and the artists are addressing in the exhibition. That was the reason why it went into a slightly different direction for transmediale, where the main focus was on alien matter and not so much on this more global perspective, a world without us.

A&T: In relation to technology and artificial intelligence the two usual positions are the one of critique in order to kind of step out–because, you know, computers are alienating society and so on–, or to take back control of technology that is getting out of hand, one could say. The latter is also similar to the position of some of the so-called left accelerationist thinkers, especially the ones that relate to contemporary art as well, namely Malik or Avanessian, also Srnicek, where of course we have to acknowledge the reality where non-human actors are increasingly taking the leading role in the organization of our societies, but there’s still the question of how can we kind of get back on the train that is escaping us. In contrast, your work builds on the idea of a world without humans; is this more in the sense of human extinction? Or transformation of the human into something that is not what we think it should be?

I: The latter. It’s not some kind of post-catastrophic scenario at all, but rather a gradual development. I don’t think there will be a great catastrophe and there will be no humans any more. I mean the question is also whether we are talking about humans at all when we talk about “a world without us.” Who is us? It could be that it’s already an entanglement. You mentioned so many topics, of course all of these positions are perfectly valid, but … I’m also personally very critical of technology. However, in this exhibition those critical or activist positions are not very prominent. They function on another, maybe more complex, level. Sometimes I think that simply saying »We are against surveillance!« ist too simple. Of course, who isn’t? Many positions in the exhibition try to connect to the everyday life of people, for example, or they try to use sweet characters, such as the Kitty A.I., which looks like a cute cat, or the works look at everyday home appliances, like an intelligent fridge or some kind of a vacuum cleaner. They present beautiful landscape images, as in Krunglevicius’ work, and they lure you into something that is beautiful at first sight, but once you’re there, you realize that what this algorithm is saying could also be really ambivalent,. You suddenly realize that this algorithm is talking about us. First you really enjoy the beauty or the cuteness or whatever, but on second thought, you could also suddenly realize that this is actually a horror show.

A&T: So the role of anthropomorphization in this instance would be to lure the spectator who is of course human and needs this connection.

I: It’s exactly what Kitty A.I. is doing and even outright says so. Kitty A.I. is the world emperor, the absolute governor and it answers the question »Why do I look like a cat?« with: »Obviously because people love cats, cute cats, and if I wouldn’t look like cat, people would be afraid of me.«

A&T: You emphasized earlier that the visions that are included in the ideas in the exhibition are not some separate reality or science fiction, but something that is really part of what’s already happening. We find that important. You’ve mentioned that the artists employ strategies that do not propose an outside vision looking in, but are themselves already part of this fabric, whereas more activist positions often times try to voice their opinions of surveillance, big data and so on, but may sometimes give an impression as though there were an alternative, as from an “outside” … That reminded us of the last year’s Berlin Biennial that also had this position of acting from within the situation. Contemporary art, especially in Slovenia, usually opts for the critical position–due to the tradition of the avant-gardes, I guess–which is great. Though the critical position too often also includes rejecting technology and capital as a way of seemingly keeping your hands clean, trying to stay out of the mess. And many exhibitions and biennials of contemporary art that are taking this critical position and searching for alternatives to capitalist reality also avoid dealing with how they themselves are implicated in it.

I: They don’t actually take the consequences of this reality.

A&T: …And the 9th Berlin Biennial actually took a different position, but it was also perceived as a cynical or ironic move. Though in our opinion it was closer to overidentification or something similar. This is not directly related to your exhibitions, but the position artists take might be comparable …

I: It’s funny that you mentioned overidentification. As a Slovenian you perfectly understand what the Berlin Biennial actually did. I completely agree with you. But before I comment on the Berlin Biennial, I would like to go back to just one example, the television series called Black Mirror. This is something I am a big fan of. First of all, it’s a really interesting television series, obviously it comes from the UK. I always give this as a good example in Germany because in Germany we don’t seem to be able to produce good television series about such topics. And this series is really great because it’s not science fiction, I mean it could be considered as science fiction, but science fiction would deal with the very distant future. Black Mirror, on the other hand, kind of imagines the world five years ahead, or ten years ahead. So the world looks exactly like today, but there are some newly-introduced devices that actually have a huge effect on how people interact with each other. I somehow see a similar move in the work of some of the artists in the exhibition. As for the Berlin Biennial, I don’t think this was an ironic move. I mean the Berlin Biennial was completely thrashed by the critical Berlin left art scene. It was funny to read all these terrible judgments from journalists and so on. I really enjoyed the Berlin Biennial because it was about enjoying the surfaces, enjoying the flatness. So for me, it was, in that kind of acceptance, a super critical show. Precisely because of overidentification. For me, looking at what the curators, DIS collective did, felt … What I mean to say is that I come from a slightly older generation, so I thought to myself that for this younger generation, it must be really hard because they’re trapped between these surfaces. Actually, the question is where’s the alternative. And in that way I sometimes felt that this was a show that was also a bit melancholic, so I found it really good.

A&T: Yes, it took the position of the ones that will be viewing the biennial as a very concrete position, as socially determined … The exhibition took into account that art as a field is not really democratic in a sense, I mean who goes to biennials? This biennial really took what usually seems as something that has to be given up, put aside in order to be truly critical of capitalism, but of course it’s not necessarily a zero sum game, you can establish this critical position within your lived reality to see the cracks in it and open the position for the other, not just import it let’s say from the streets into the gallery or something like that. Didn’t the previous biennial, or even one before that, bring the Occupy movement?

I: Yes, Arthur Žmijewski together with Joanna Warsza, they curated that biennial together. That was really like activism in the art space, it also somehow didn’t work. I mean, not also, it somehow didn’t work at all.

A&T: And this 9th Berlin biennial would be more about how can the biennial occupy itself.

I: Exactly.

A&T: Maybe we can return to the question about the narrative and storytelling. In the text written by Weibel, Renaissance 2.0 … The title, by the way, reminded us of this one chapter in the Matrix animation where the machines are emancipated from humans, not like Weibel envisions it … But ok, where were we? In this text Weibel delineates art history in three parts, you have this idea that modern art goes either in the way of representing the means of representation, where of course the world that should be represented is cut off in a way. Then you have the other one, where things from the world enter the world of art and represent themselves, the readymade is such example. But he tries to put contemporary art that uses technology and is connected to scientific discoveries and so on in the third line of media art where he says that it’s not about »depiction but about construction, not about mimesis of the real but about simulation«. And he connects it to this »acting« in the world. Can storytelling here be seen as acting in the world or is it more about »making familiar« what is alien to us in contrast to »making strange« …

I: Shklovsky.

A&T: … what is familiar? Is it about fiction or acting?

I: My background is in literature, Russian literature, that’s why I mentioned Shklovsky. I think storytelling is not something passive that you listen to, but the construction of the world, in a way. It’s making something graspable, understandable, and I think it’s a very important function, an important element of contemporary art, I would say. When we talk about media art, often there are many examples that I personally would not be interested in because they’re actually about a demonstration of technologies and a very affirmative relation towards the media, the technologies that artists are using. That’s a huge trend in that field and I personally do not find it very interesting. Storytelling is really a medium in itself. It’s a technology in itself, a very old technology. For instance, Suzy [Suzanne Treister], she’s not using any kind of digital media, with the exception of the video file, of course. Her main focus is making drawings and she is making something accessible with these at first glance very traditional means. I really think storytelling is a technology.

A&T: That’s similar to what Benjamin H. Bratton says in one of his texts when he talks about images as technology, but more in the context that the image is not just a representation for human eyes, but also functions as a source of data. He also talks about the status of representation in the context of digital imagery and big data where visualization of data is not necessary for human eyes, as artificial intelligence can see the image directly from the data. We also remembered Harun Farocki’s works about operational images and Trevor Paglen talked about this in the article published in e-flux. Actually, this brings us back to the first question about the position of the (human) viewer. We still have works that are visual …

I: Absolutely, because they are made for human eyes.

A&T: Maybe it’s not even possible to …

I: I think so, it’s not possible because there is no image, I mean it does not necessarily exist as visual information. Somehow I’m always wondering about the status of those images, and the images we see in Robot Readable World by Timo Arnall. For whom are these images made? Machines don’t need these images because a machine, or an algorithm, can deal with big data or even huge data itself, so it doesn’t have to go through visualization.

A&T: In this work there are no narratives, there’s just music.

I: In Timo Arnall?

A&T: Yes.

I: Yes. It’s like ambient music.

A&T: And what do you think is the role of this music? To make it more accessible? So that we can suffer through these images that are uninteresting for human eyes and then we can …

I: (Laughs) No, I think that for human eyes these images are very interesting because you suddenly realize how the machine sees our world and how it makes sense of our world. And you realize that, shit, this is not just ok. It can recognize a human being, it can distinguish a human from a car, it can even differentiate between individuals in a huge crowd of people. Whow, if this is possible, what follows? All the works in the exhibition are definitely some sort of interfaces for humans to have a brief glance into this other world. And obviously they either have to find means of communication, or they have to use means of communication or technologies that we are familiar with. I cannot deal with raw data. It doesn’t make any sense to me. It makes sense to a machine, but not to me.

A&T: Perhaps one more question. We are again referring to Bratton because you mentioned him in your talk yesterday. In his text on speculative design he mentions the 10,000-year project of radioactive waste management that was commissioned by the US government. A completely interdisciplinary project to invent the signage to warn future entities, not necessarily human, about the radioactiveness of the material that will after 10.000 years still be present in the soil. And then he advocates for a design that wouldn’t be human-centered, one that would also take into account these non-human scales and time spans that could be seen as the world without us. Even though we are in this world now, the world has different levels of complexity and on some of them we are not an important factor. Would this mean that your exhibition advocates for non-human-centered art?

I: Even this initial question whether radioactivity will be dangerous for entities in the future suggests that radioactivity will be dangerous to them–maybe they will feed on that, I don’t know– and is a completely human-centered question. It’s an initial problem in the process of conceiving this big project for the military. I am not thinking in terms of such time scales for this small exhibition, even though it has twelve works in it. I’m very humble, I’m not designing a new golden disk for the Voyager. (Laughs)

A&T: Just one quick question before we conclude. You work as a director of HMKV. We wonder if you think an institution could be a good platform or a tool to address the situation we are talking about? As the art institution is not just involved in art but is part of a bigger system, economy, politics and so on, in processes that are more and more shaped also by these non-human actors.

I: Well I made this exhibition initially at HMKV and in order to understand how we work, you have to know a little bit about the place or the location or the context we are situated in. It’s a former coal-mining area, so it’s the ultimate landscape of the anthropocene, actually. Coal-mining, steel production, beer brewing, football. It’s like the north of England. And when you look at the relief, when you climb the tower of the house we are located in, you realize that all the landscape that looks natural is actually man-made. The whole surface sank down approximately 14 meters over the last 200 years due to the continuous process of extraction. There are artificial mounds, of course; everything that was not coal was just left on the surface. It’s completely man-made, a beautiful and particularly impressive symbol for the anthropocene. On the other level, it’s still a very working-class mentality. I have been working there for 12 years and this was somewhat of a healing shock for me. I want to make contemporary art exhibitions; but how do you interface, how do you communicate, how do you take away people’s fear of something they might not understand? Because contemporary art is something very, I would say, alien to most people. I actually had to learn how to communicate, how to in a way mediate between the more general audience and what we do, i.e. all the topics we are interested in. And that taught me a lot. We don’t necessarily show artist who are represented by galleries, some of them are, but most of them are not. I don’t know, I forgot the last part of your question … (Laughs)

A&T: That’s all right, I think we can end it here. Thank you so much for your time!