The Future Around The Corner: Interview with Heather Dewey-Hagborg

Bianca Cavuti, Digicult, May 2, 2019

Human beings have always needed to face their time and raised questions about the future, on the edge between the fascination and the fear for rapid and complex scientific and technological progress. Heather Dewey-Hagborg is a transdisciplinary artist with a PhD in Electronic Arts from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who moves on the border of narration and science. She uses art as a key tool for thinking about the nature and the entailments of a world of Artifical Intelligences and biological surveillance.


Through the dystopian visions of artworks such as Stranger Visions  and the future scenario of, for example, Spirit Molecule, her works show a universe in which art, science, theory, philosophy and technological (and biotechnological) research are interwoven until they disclose the possibilities and the snares of the contemporary.


Bianca Cavuti: Your work is somewhere between art and science, and actually, yourself are an artist, a researcher and a scientist simultaneously. It is particularly interesting the experimental slant of your projects, that often start with a question leading to theoretical and artistic reflections. Where does this approach come from? What is today the value of the transdisciplinarity in contemporary art?


Heather Dewey-HagborgMy approach hybridizes the conceptual with a technological and scientific form of inquiry. It draws on the lineage of conceptual art but asks why can’t the concepts be scientific, or technologically oriented? I use the conceptual as a jumping off point for the inquiry to make work that is thoroughly research-based but also very much grounded in the histories of conceptual art, and media art that have come before me.


The value of a transdisciplinary approach is responding to the world we inhabit. We exist in a technologically mediated world that is increasingly also a biotechnologically mediated world. Of course artists should utilize new media of all forms in asking questions and sharing their observations of life as they experience it.


Bianca Cavuti: A Spurious Memories, one of your first artworks, is, to put it in your words, “an experiment in artificial creativity”. Will you tell us something about it? What are the reflections and the ideas which are at stake?


Heather Dewey-Hagborg: In 2007 I developed Spurious Memories as an experiment in artificial creativity. Could a computer really be intelligent? And perhaps more interestingly, could a computer be creative? In a flurry of youthful enthusiasm, I set out to show that it could, and soon found myself mired in questions about what creativity actually meant. For the purposes of this project I defined it as “the generation o fan output that was not explicitly learned”. I designed a system that would connect a principal components analysis neural network with a self-organizing map, and I trained it on images of faces.


The system had two modes of operation. The first was recognition. You could present it with an image of a face from the training data and it would identify it. Or you could present some other kind of image: random noise, clouds, burnt toast, and it would recognize something, though more likely than not it wouldn’t be one of the faces it had been taught, it would be a kind of ghost face, a spurious memory composed of an assemblage of statistical components of other faces. At the time this felt a lot like creativity to me. The second mode of the system was associative. I wondered what the dreams of a facial recognition system would look like, and I implemented a recurrent mode that would start with random input and then drift along to neighboring states.


But over the last ten years, my sentiments towards AI have really changed in a way I can only describe as boredom. Maybe the more interesting question for me now is not so much the technical one of this Turing style test, can computers do human-like things without us, but more a question of implications. What does it mean for computers do kind-of-creative things? What does a world with kind-of-creative AI-generated art and music and writing look like, and feel like? And of course the political question: who gets to decide what creativity means? Whose data trains the system and who gets left out?