The Museum of Edible Earth captivates the senses of the visitor through the simplicity of the sense of taste, while enabling access to the complex theme of the sacredness of the Earth and our relationship to it as human beings. Whereas in recent centuries, the Earth was devaluated to dirt and appropriated as just a natural resource, masharu aims to re-introduce geophagy—the practice of eating earth and earth-like substances, such as clay and chalk, an ancient spiritual and healing practice in countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. During the Museum experience the participant is encouraged to touch, interact and taste, allowing for a personally evocative experience to contemplate a privileged relationship to the environment. With its 400 samples from 36 countries, The Museum of Edible Earth provides a unique insight into one of the traditional yet forgotten ways people worldwide relate to their immediate surroundings. The jury especially appreciates the way the public can viscerally interact with this collection through tasting and eating, in addition to the convincing storytelling.
While we (humans) refer to potential outer-space life as ‘aliens,’ queer and transgender life on Earth is also, still, often referred to as ‘alien.’ tranxxeno lab by Adriana Knauf addresses the biochemical requirements of transgender persons in outer space, especially their need for hormone replacement medication, by sending such medication to the International Space Station and back, thus testing their overall resilience through all steps of space travel. As such, the TX-1 project addresses the political question of which bodies (do not) get accepted by established space programs, meanwhile transgender bodies may teach society at large how all bodies transition through their personal, societal, and environmental changes and that all of them require support and care, usually hidden and ignored, for their survival—in space and on Earth. The jury was wildly convinced by the personal story underlaying the project, exposing the artist’s vulnerabilities while advocating for the acceptance of trans people in society.
Paola Torres Núñez del Prado explores traditional Peruvian knowledge systems like quipus (a knot-based record keeping system used by the ancient Incan civilization) or Shipibo textiles (a fabric-based form of multimodal transcription) and brings these systems to digital life using technologies like machine learning and sound synthesis, speculating on how they might be seen and understood by their makers and by contemporaries. For AIELSON, the artist trained a neural net on Latin American poetry, including works by conceptual poet Jorge Eduardo Eielson, known for his work interpreting quipus. This project represents a multigenerational approach to a mysterious historical medium: To make the neural-net generated poetry audible, the artist trained a Spanish language voice model on Argentine voices, since no South American speech generation models were available. The recorded output was pressed into a vinyl record and released as an album online, complete with the glitches and grain that Torres Núñez Del Prado also celebrates elsewhere in her work.
In the quest for a universal language, biological and cultural alike, Joe Davis’ and Sarah Khan’s interdisciplinary and interreligious attempt to ‘create angels’ via DNA encoding appears as a particularly timely, poetic, and humble call to humanity to mobilize all resources that art, science, and spirituality provide in order to stand together in times of a devastating pandemic. This collaboration between the US American pioneer of the use of DNA as a storage medium for extra-biological information and the Pakistani artist and wetware engineer consists of translating a centuries-old Arabic tradition of symbolically creating a sheer infinite number of angels by uttering a phrase daily pronounced by millions of Muslims into a genetic sequence, which, synthesized and reproduced many quintillion times in ‘BioBricks,’ fits on the head of a pin. Applying cascading DNA-encoding strategies to stratify layers of information contained in DNA molecules, here, a parallel is drawn to mathematically inspired repeating calligraphy in Islamic art.
Bricolage deals with very contemporary biotechnological research on pluripotent stem cells and, as such, stands out as an original and convincingly strong take on tissue culture. The art/science group consisting of Nathan Thomson, Guy Ben-Ary, and Sebastian Diecke reprogrammed white blood cells into heart muscle cells, pulsating and visible for the human eye. As the incubator is hanging from the ceiling, the supremacy of the viewer is playfully undermined as the recipients observe the live performance from below by literally ‘looking up’ to the pulsating living cells. These so-called ‘automatons’ not only challenge the human-nonhuman hierarchy but also frame the phenomenological question of what life is. By presenting the living cells in a clay container, Bricolage simultaneously evokes an archaic past and brings along a futuristic component.
Capture is an example of countersurveillance via the democratization of surveillance technology: By capturing 4,000 faces of French police officers during demonstrations, identifying them through facial recognition software and creating a crowdsourcing platform for people to help revealing their identity, Paolo Cirio addresses the asymmetry of power and turns upside down the technological apparatus that normally is in the hands of the state. Capture argues that if police are using violent tools they should be held accountable in a transparent way. This ‘tit for tat’ strategy makes the spectator feel uncomfortable but also empowered. Men and women hiding behind masks and gear are now exposed and vulnerable. This activist work is part of the campaign to ban facial recognition technology in Europe.
Allison Parrish pushes language into philosophical and sometimes humorous territory through a combination of phonemic embodiment and machine learning techniques. At the same time computer programmer, poet, educator, and game designer Parrish builds custom AI tools for generating concrete poetry and with Compasses pushes this poetry off the page and into the multidimensional mathematical space of a neural net. Unlike complex AI art projects, which often require long, technical definitions to be understood, the process of generating Compasses is instantly legible. With the words animal, vegetable, and mineral laid out in a triangular formation, the interpolated terms maneral and vigenable clearly evoke hybrids, between animal and mineral, mineral and vegetable. What would those look like? Having received these new terms, how might we use them?
PL’AI is a work about the playful interaction between an AI robot and a cucumber plant. Špela Petrič explores the question what it would mean to make an Artificial Intelligence that thinks of itself as a plant. Petrič steps with this bold move into new territory. Colorful bouncy balls: the tendril searches for something to grab on to. Once the plant grabs hold of one of the bouncy balls, which is captured by the camera, this signals the AI to stop that ball from moving. The piece emphasizes an explicit plant interest, the AI robot does obey vegetal desires. This plant-centric viewpoint also ironically undermines any commercial corporate pragmatism, as the plant is not here to serve. The vegetal growth behavior, however, challenges us humans, since it is for us only visible with the technological help of a time lapse.
Alan Kwan’s SCENT is a meditative reflection of the themes of fear, life, and death. At the same time video game, cinematic encounter, art experience, and 3D environment with an immersive sound design, SCENT creates moments of exploration and reflection through gameplay. On this journey, the participant travels through the perspective of a stray dog whose sole purpose is to follow the scent of fear, as humans are massacred in an imaginary world, in order to facilitate their reincarnation. While the artist is from Hong Kong and his work may be interpreted within this specific contemporary context, the experience, however, transports the participant into a world reflecting universal themes that does not need the context of social politics and society.
With Slave Rebellion Enactment, black social and political artist Dread Scott has initiated a re-enactment of the slave rebellion in New Orleans in 1811, reviving the strength of the community as they strove towards emancipation and freedom. The community performance consists of over 300 black and indigenous people dressed in 19th-century clothing travelling on horses, traversing 24 miles over two days before arriving at the destination of New Orleans. In line with Spanish philosopher George Santayana’s dictum that “those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it,” in this public performance the power of enactment told through the Black lens becomes a form of empowerment through storytelling. The jury acknowledges the importance of this performative action and spiritual journey, for participants and the audience alike, as extremely relevant on both local and global levels, while Black history in America has proven to be mis-representative in the past.
Sound for Fungi brilliantly translates fungal art-science research and philosophical reflections on the nature of networks into a convincing way of audience interaction. In the context of current biotechnological research on local tree mushrooms conducted at the Technical University Berlin, Schubert experimented with the influence of sound inducement on mycelium growth and then developed a digital interactive media installation based on her results. With the help of a tracking sensor, visitors can experience and experiment with mycelium growth while reflecting the complexities of fungal networks, currently one the most intensely frequented research topics within current biotechnology. Schubert’s interactive artwork not only makes the phenomenon of the subterranean network (Wood Wide Web) palpable but also convincingly incorporates aesthetic strategies of play and chance.
The Cleanroom Paradox challenges one of the mainstream modern narratives—the cleanness of high-tech. To demonstrate a case of such misleading narratives, the project focuses on a portrait of a former IT factory worker diagnosed with kidney cancer after her time working on a new Samsung Galaxy mobile phone. The artist group used a corrosive ink obtained from chemically dissolved smartphones for the actual screen-printing of a portrait: the toxic agent affecting the worker’s health was used to depict the otherwise invisible worker and her dirty story from the mobile phone production line. On a formal aesthetic level, the deliberate use of controversial agents as a substance in traditional printed media demonstrates how old tech can contribute to ‘cleaning’ high-tech dirt. The jury recognizes an urgency in sharing such stories behind mainstream consumer narratives in order to encourage the public to rethink their responsibilities toward those people who risk their own lives at fabricating our tools.
With their immersive and aesthetically stunning room installation The Transparency of Randomness, Vera Tolazzi and Mathias Gartner translate the abstract mathematical problem of randomness into a materially tangible space visitors can experience from inside: 27 floating boxes, arranged in the form of a giant regular dice, themselves contain dices that generate numbers but which are, in turn, confronted with different irregular surfaces onto which they fall—moss, wood, cork, orange slices, berries, cactus, organic materials, cinnamon sticks, etc. At the threshold between theoretical physics and interaction design, the installation fuses analog and digital media to create awareness about the role that random numbers play in research fields between quantum mechanics and artificial intelligence, meanwhile seeming to update Stéphane Mallarmé’s famous poetic dictum that ”a throw of the dice will never abolish chance.“
This multi-faceted project embraces an important discursive field in current biopolitics and bioethics: ectogenesis, artificial wombs, and surrogacy are some of the main aspects among many here. Starting from artistic research to explore ultrasound, the collective translates their investigations on an intensely controversial topic into various formats, including hands-on units in software coding, installations, performances, and public talks. The jury welcomes the open discursive format as it offers the necessary space and development for discussions to unfold—on yet undefined bioethical territories that have been part of Science Fiction since Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” and which are actually being realized in research with other mammals, and soon with humans, too.
Jens Hauser, Kenric McDowell, Karen Palmer, Regine Rapp, Marleen Stikker
Toxic human-made clouds, hazardous working conditions in the global high-tech IT industry, information and computational systems, laboratory settings, biopolitical and medical constellations, warfare and surveillance technologies—all these are infrastructures used, addressed, and questioned by the award-winning cultural practitioners in the Artificial Intelligence & Life Art category of Prix Ars Electronica 2021. Rather than focusing on clearly defined ‘arty’ objects or installations, this year’s vintage of projects is first and foremost characterized by a quest to emphasize those materials which make our supposedly immaterial technologies possible, and stage underlying processes and unsuspected structures that have, in turn, real impacts on multiple forms of lives, from the macro to the micro level. The jury witnessed a widespread desire to respond, aesthetically and ethically, to current tendencies of dislocation, digression, delimitation or demarcation—be it in the context of geopolitics, body politics, or the momentous interdependence of postcolonial agriculture and drastic human-made changes of contemporary ecologies. At times dystopic, often disturbing, politically engaged, and sometimes indeed optimistic, these cross-disciplinary projects demonstrate the extremely wide range of artistic practices that can fall into this category, and which otherwise would not have a home elsewhere.
By coupling “Artificial Intelligence” with “Life Art,” embracing the interconnectedness of the living with the technological, one would have suspected that the current planetary Covid pandemic would have constituted a privileged background for artistic examination. But while the number of submissions (759) was slightly reduced this year due to the health crisis, no specific and dominant thematic SARS-CoV-2 focus emerged. Given the sudden, often hasty-looking attempts to come up with inflationary and quick ‘virus art and philosophy’ in contemporary culture at large, the phenomenon that the viral, as material and metaphor, has barely been present deserves some attention. And it also seems to the jury that the pandemic is yet too fresh, or too present, to give ground to a fully adequate artistic commentary on the many layered ruptures the pandemic has brought to our world(s).
Instead, the jury saw clusters of work that turn surveillance, simulation, and modelling techniques upside down, use AI and neuronal networks poetically, denounce airborne violence, address and materialize complex concepts such as indeterminacy and randomness, stage works in relationship to current biopolitics and bioethics from medical surrogacy to pluripotent stem cells research, ‘alien,’ queer and transgender life. But other clusters also refer to supposedly archaic technologies and more ancient traditions and engagement with materials and metabolisms that aim at overcoming the artificial discursive split between what is considered in/organic or in/animate, thus collapsing animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms.
Again, this year, the jury witnessed a strong presence within the field of biomedia art practices and, what struck us in particular, a surprising co-presence of the first, second, and third generation of artists, and their respective interest in code and concept on the one hand, and on alternative nonhuman agencies on the other: A large range of artistic projects deal with plants, fungi, bacteria, or microbiota, relating to the growing field of contemporary microbiome research. On the other hand, this year the jury could encounter a wider range of genres—from interactive and at some point monumental immersive installations, cinematic and documentary film projects, up to reenactment performances.