Putting the Art in Artificial Intelligence

The robots have come for our art. A pair of shows explore what it means to be human in the age of artificial intelligence.

Viewers can send texts to Martine Syms’s Mythiccbeing (my-thicc-being), and she’ll respond.
Viewers can send texts to Martine Syms’s Mythiccbeing (my-thicc-being), and she’ll respond.

Whether or not you’re grappling head-on with the degree to which you’re interfacing with machines, we all know on some level that artificial intelligence is no longer a futuristic notion. AI has already infiltrated our daily lives and turned us into monetized data sets. Don’t believe it? Just ask Alexa or Siri.

“AI is very much in the air, yet it’s surprising that it hasn’t been the subject of a major museum exhibition in the United States until now,” says Claudia Schmuckli, the curator in charge of contemporary art and programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Schmuckli spent the past two and a half years organizing Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI at the de Young Museum. Interactive works by 14 artists from the United States and Europe probe the uneasy relationship between human beings and so-called thinking machines—as well as the ways pernicious biases get baked into our databases and software, exploding the myth of objectivity. (The phrase “uncanny valley” was coined by Japanese engineer Masahiro Mori in 1970 as a metaphor for the existential uncertainty humans feel when confronting autonomous machines that mimic their bodies and thought processes.)

“Artists can help undercut the polarized and sensationalist discourse around AI that’s still quite prevalent in popular culture to get at the heart of what it really means to live in and reckon with this particular moment,” Schmuckli says. San Francisco’s proximity to Silicon Valley “makes it important to encourage this conversation at the center of where these technologies are being developed.”

On the museum’s first floor, Los Angeles artist and self-described “conceptual entrepreneur” Martine Syms’s interactive Mythiccbeing encourages viewers to communicate with an avatar of Syms herself through text messaging. (Unlike our always-obedient virtual assistants, Syms voices personal observations and frustrations about racial inequality and social injustice.) Video works by MacArthur “genius” grant winner Trevor Paglen and San Francisco artist-filmmaker-provocateur Lynn Hershman Leeson similarly critique our overreliance on algorithms that purport to know us better than we know ourselves.

Stas Orlovski’s Chimera utilizes charcoal, ink, Xerox transfer, and collage. The result is animated and then projected onto museum walls.
Stas Orlovski’s Chimera utilizes charcoal, ink, Xerox transfer, and collage. The result is animated and then projected onto museum walls.


Stas Orlovski: Chimera, on view at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, is a timely complement to the de Young’s AI exhibition. The Moldova-born, Los Angeles–based artist, whose work was shown at the 2015 Venice Biennale, has been working at the intersection of technologies old and new for the past 26 years, fusing antique sensibilities with new age methods by creating animations that are projection-mapped onto and into found objects. “I wanted to make something that wasn’t contained, that didn’t have a border or a frame,” Orlovski said in 2014 of his inspiration for Chimera. “So I thought if I project onto a wall and make a moving drawing—not really a film or an animation but a drawing that moved…maybe that would be OK.”

The show is more than OK. It’s a mesmerizing installation that dances across adjacent gallery walls inspired by magical 18th- and 19th-century phantasmagoria shows. On one side, a collaged trio of female silhouettes; on another, an old-fashioned oval mirror seems to reflect a moonlit waterfall, plant life, birds, and hand-drawn patterns.

Orlovski feels the pull of history and uses an unabashed “iconography of nostalgia.” The de Young’s AI exhibition, on the other hand, peers into the near future to address what being human means in an age of increasing automation and replication. Looking back, or looking forward, both of these compelling shows encourage us to track how we’re relating to these amalgams of pattern and data—with our heads or with our hearts.


• Feb. 22–Oct. 25
• de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr., San Francisco


• Through Mar. 22
• San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, 560 S. 1st St., San Jose

 Jessica Zack is a Bay Area journalist who writes about books, film, and visual culture.
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