Berlin-based artist Marianna Simnett’s latest project is a contemporary fairytale with machine learning, neolithic flutes and corporate girlbossery
A corporate queen in a power suit and a bright pink AK47 delivers a madcap speech to the masses. A chorus of live flautists transform their song in real-time using AI-generated sounds. A shapeshifting Gorgon cries out somewhere deep in the forest. Drawing on Ancient Greek mythology and advanced technology, Berlin-based artist Marianna Simnett’s latest project GORGON (presented by LAS Art Foundation) is as captivating as it is ambitious. Debuting at Berlin Art Week, it’s an AI-generated flute opera about the goddess Athena reimagined as a neoliberal girlboss, and reinterpreted through the ecological lens of cyberfeminist philosopher Donna Haraway.
“Athena’s always glorified as being this sort of beautiful goddess, but actually she was quite nasty and revolting,” begins Simnett. Having written, composed, and directed the opera herself, GORGON takes shape as a modern-day fairytale, where Athena is transformed into Greta, a Dunkin Doughnuts worker who ruthlessly fights her way to the top of the corporate ladder to become a 3D printed guns manufacturer. “I teleported her into being a kind of neoliberal monster,” she says. This late-capitalist spin is an effective tool for Simnett, who uses the motif of Greta and her gun to explore conversations surrounding AI, with the firearm doubling as a flute as per the original Greek myth.
“The flute is a really great instrument because as a graphic, it’s a kind of line, or it’s a prosthesis, or a wand, or an extension of a limb, it’s a container of breath. It's a vehicle for transporting breath out into the world,” she explains. “The use of the flute became this multifarious tool, and decipher for technology itself, as a way of tool building.” The point is this: the flute – which is also a Barbie-pink gun, sometimes a neolithic bone, confusing, I know – is both a tool and a weapon, but it’s up to the user to discern its usage. Similarly, AI has the transformative potential to open up new worlds, yet it’s the financial motives of a select few that make it such a danger. Simnett expands, “Be scared of the powerful people who want to get richer but don't be scared of the tool.”
For Simnett, AI’s ability to mimic human language has a similar duality. In one scene, Greta is rehearsing her speeches, made by vocal cloning the words of actual political leaders such as Hilary Clinton, Merkel and Obama. These phrases are effectively empty – “there’s nothing really said, but everything’s said” – which creates unease in the audience. It highlights the way language is evolving with technology to become primed for the algorithm, for virality. “Unconsciously or not, we are performing for an Other that we don't see,” she expands. “We imagine the immediate mediatisation of our words before we've said them, or as we're saying them. So there's always this sort of imagined audience I think increasingly as a filter on us, as a strange performativity.”
There’s an irony to this: human behaviour, the way we speak, the content we post, is increasingly geared towards the algorithm, while AI – which arguably has the potential to open up new ways of seeing the world beyond our limited perspective – is made out to be the villain. We see this tension unravel in the closing scenes of GORGON. Greta’s own AI-garbled speech starts to break down and short-circuit as she becomes subsumed into a swarm of bees. “Look, love touch. Do you see? Do you understand? Do you feel what others feel? The sky is not falling, the sky is not falling, the sky is not falling, the sky has not yet fallen,” goes the closing words – a reference to Haraway’s 2016 book Staying With The Trouble (“We have to remember the sky has not yet fallen”). “There’s this doom floating over us at the moment,” Simnett concludes, “but the message of the piece is one of hope and empathy”.
Visit the gallery above for a closer look at Marianna Simnett’s AI opera GORGON(presented by LAS Art Foundation).