“What does love look like? What does faith look like? Or ritual? Worship? What does God look like? Could we teach a machine about these very abstract, subjectively human concepts?” – this is what artist, researcher, and creative technologist Memo Akten’s most recent work dares to ask, in a world increasingly empowered and defined by artificial intelligence.
The Istanbul-born, London-based Akten has been on a decades-long journey into the human relationship with technology, and the machine’s trick-mirror gaze back on us. Currently working on a PHD in machine learning, Akten is fascinated by how augmenting our selves, views, and creation expression with artificial intelligence can shape this current world and the future one. His major interest lies in the cultural, social, spiritual, and philosophical intersections that traverse rapidly developing AI technology. These leaps in science reflect how we see the world and each other, how we choose what to value, and how we polarise society, issues made all the more prevalent for Akten to investigate at a time of climate emergency and the rise of the far-right.
Akten’s “Deep Meditations” is a one-hour immersive film that dives into the subjective experience of life, nature, and the universe. Attendees at Sonar +D were able to view the project in its expansive entirety, as part of Akten’s collaboration with the modern European hotel group ME by Meliá. ME by Melia’s cultural initiative, ‘The Culture Collective’, supports projects like Akten’s, and offers its guests the opportunity to experience art and culture across its destinations, from the new ME Sitges Terramar to London and the forthcoming Barcelona spot.
Sonar+D, in continued collaboration with ME by Meliá and with other guests including NASA, is an international congress that brings together artists, musicians, scientists, hackers, creative technologists and more to inspire thinking around how creativity affects our present and future – plus, the revered Sonar music festival runs alongside it. The conference follows key themes, from the design of experiences as the creative language of our time, to the most recent technological innovations in the music and sound industries, and artificial intelligence as a tool for artistic creation.
Viewing “Deep Meditations” at the Melia booth at Sonar+D, was a rare, reflective moment across the conference and festival, as it enraptured its crowd – its slow, lofty, meditative, and terrifyingly beautiful. All at once, it’s like standing on the rocky precipice of Caspar David Fredriech’s Romantic era-defining painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, and staring into a future where algorithm-made art lines our walls with the Warhols. The images shown in the film are generated from scratch by the neural network, which has been trained with photos scraped from flickr and keywords. The soundtrack is scored – in a sense – by another neural network that was trained on YouTube videos of religious and spiritual chants and prayers. From the subjective human relationships it gleans from these objects, AI offers up art that touches on themes of life, nature, spirituality, faith, and identity. It is what Akten describes as ‘a brief history of almost everything in 60 minutes’ – the neural network visualises the birth of our universe, evolution, the human race’s genesis, the beginning of culture and history, art, technology, everyday life as we know it. So what does AI take from the millions of lives lived? The images flicker from blooming flowers that become jagged skyscrapers, volcano eruptions bubble into Renaissance paintings.
Some of Akten’s other recent work could be seen at the Barbican’s AI: More Than Human exhibition, a mammoth production that explored the creative and scientific developments in Artificial Intelligence, unpacking the evolution of that symbiotic relationship from modern tech back to the medieval. Akten’s collaboration with Nexus Studios, “Learning to See”, utilises computer vision and generative animation technology – an interactive installation where visitors could use a neural network to analyse their own movements and everyday objects on a table, which would then interpret the image and create beautiful, disturbing, sublime instances of AI art – a scrunched up piece of paper, a pencil, or a fist could be translated into crashing waves or star-studded galaxies. In another, “Body Paint”, a visual instrument lets participants paint on a virtual canvas with their bodies and movement. Machine learning is both Akten’s medium, specialism, and subject.
The political elements of his art are drawn out even more in our conversation post-Sonar. “Artists and technologists have a significant part to play in the ongoing discourse to stop AI being used for sinister purposes,” explains Akten. “When I started my PHD, it was just before the AI hype explosion. It’s now very clear that, for a long time, this technology has been developed for surveillance. The corporations funding it – Google, Facebook, the NSA – these organisations are funding these technologies to make sense of the data they are collecting from us.”
The current state of divided, polarised society heavily influences Akten’s trajectory. He references his views of conflict in Turkey, living in London during the rise of ISIS and the Paris Charlie Hebdo attack, as well as the fraught atmosphere surrounding Brexit. “What is truly being done to reconcile the differences between the left and the right? Between remainers and leavers? Nothing. To get to where we want to be, we should try to understand why people believe certain things – why they vote for Brexit or vote for Trump.” At the heart of “Deep Meditations” lies those same questions, of introspection and reflection – as we do in our very chaotic cultural and political landscape, we look for meaning in the surreal images created by the neural network, and project onto them what we think we know and believe. In connecting images of landscapes and what we believe look like objects we know in “Deep Meditations”, Akten highlights self-affirming cognitive biases, and our inability to see the world from others’ point of view; the thinking that’s got the world to where it’s at right now.
He continues: “It’s really important in my work to get a good understanding of what’s happening, and what awaits us. There’s a community of artists working with AI, and we’re all trying to tell different stories about both its benefits and threats. If we’re going to cure illnesses, it’s going to be utilising AI. With these innovations, we’ll also see the total erosion of privacy. Artists are also trying to raise awareness to these issues that, I would like to say, lie ahead of us, but it’s not even ahead of us, it’s already here.”
“My duty is to inform people that this genesis is happening – it’s alive and in motion right now – and we should be talking about it and asking the right questions,” asserts Akten. “It’s imperative that we all do that to have hope in shaping the future.”
See more of Memo Akten’s most recent in his “Learning to See” project, an ongoing series of works that use state-of-the-art machine learning algorithms to reflect on ourselves and how we make sense of the world.