Tank Magazine’s Jan-Peter Westad has interviewed Stine Deja and and Marie Munk about their collaboration in Synthetic Seduction, and how technology alters social behaviour.
By Jan-Peter Westad
Synthetic Seduction is the latest exhibition from Marie Munk and Stine Deja. Showing at London’s Annka Kultys Gallery, the exhibition marks a first time collaboration between the two London-based Danish artists and examines the prevailing influence of technology on our innermost experiences. Set in an eerily bright space made to look like a form of hospital room, Munk’s throbbing and fleshy interactive sculptures engage with artificial forms of physical connection. These are shown alongside two new video works from Deja, which play with algorithmic logic and romantic cliché to draw attention to the patterns at the heart of our most personal and supposedly human-specific behaviours. As the relationship between artificial and human intelligence becomes increasingly intermingled in our everyday lives, Synthetic Seduction provides an immersive and piquing insight into the limits of empathy and intimacy. Jan-Peter Westad spoke to Munk and Deja about collaborating, cuddle cafes and our changing relationships with both objects and each other.
Jan-Peter Westad Did you conceive of the project together from the start, or was it a question of pairing different works?
Stine Deja The project started in a cafe in Hackney last year. We both wanted to work across disciplines so we met to discuss a potential collaboration. In the end, all the works were made alongside each other and some were directly collaborative. One of the first things that I made was a 3D animation of some skin blobs. Marie printed a screenshot of the animation and hung it on her mood board. Then she would feed something back to me and vice versa. So while some of the works are quite different, all belong in that clinical space together.
Marie Munk After that very first meeting the pairing felt very natural. We were both interested in how technology alters social behaviour, especially the way we are intimate or present with one another. And we were also feeling a similar frustration working with themes situated in the crossover between reality and virtual reality. In combining our practices we felt we’d open up more possibilities to work across reality and VR divide, and uncover the tensions between the two.
J-PW The exhibition notes quote the transhumanist thinker Mark O’Connell: “I wanted to learn what it meant to be a machine, or to think of yourself as such” and also asks, “Can a machine learn to be a human?” How far was this exploration of humanity and technology merging your own starting point?
M M From the very beginning of our project we talked a lot about the way robots and artificial intelligence will become an increasingly bigger part of everyday life, but also in more empathic roles, in the care sector for example. Robots and AIs are becoming more humanlike, but the biggest struggle is still to make them empathic.
SD This huge question you mention touches the very core of what most of us believe makes us human. If machines can become attentive and emotional, then what is left to distinguish us? We would be faced with a paradigm shift in how we understand ourselves as human beings and question the role of our biological body. Playing with this idea was at the centre of the exhibition.
J-PW The space itself is made out to be a clinical environment. What were the reasons for this setting?
SD We wanted to create a very specific atmosphere. We imagined the space as a futuristic lab and wanted it to feel super playful and inviting for the visitors. The blue curtains felt like the perfect solution because we also wanted to avoid a typical setup with works placed on the walls. Eliminating the walls forced us to think about how to place the works where people will interact with them. As I see it, the hospital environment ties everything together and just by seeing the blue curtains it gives the viewers the right context for approaching the works.
MM Creating this laboratory allowed for an experimenting with humanity, both in the bodily and the abstract sense. This mirrors reality with the development of robots and artificial intelligence and biological 3D printing. Our very substance is increasingly becoming a material for experimentation.The surgery room is also a sort of neutral space, fantastic and groundbreaking but also a place where awful things can happen and where human life is always the focus. It’s a space were reflection upon life is strong, and where many come to understand who and what is truly important to them in life.
J-PW The works are very interactive – sitting in the largest sculpture or getting right up next to the screen to hear a humanoid figure singing bring you physically close. Was this contrast between a thematic isolation and an immersive, tangible experience something you thought about?
SD Yes, definitely. In a way everything in the gallery is a “dead” object brought “alive” through electricity. The viewers might feel seduced by the intimacy of the experience, but it still reflects this isolation. It’s not an experience shared between the viewer and another human, but an experience between the viewer and an object. When researching for the show we weren’t only looking at technology, but also at how humans in general achieve intimate relationships. Something we found very fascinating were Japanese cuddle cafe’s where people come in and pay for a physical contact. I think this element is reflected in the show as well – people can literally walk in from the street and get some skin to “skin” contact. There are also non-human things performing intimate behaviours in the show, which is surely not far from the experience of paying for a hug. If it is a synthetic expression does it really have to mean nothing?
MM The idea was to create an alternative reality for people to explore rather than an artwork to look at. Like the developing fear towards or lack of touch in our mixed reality social life, there is a very palpable “no touching” atmosphere in the art world. It is interesting to give visitors a different experience of art. It made sense for us, working with this topic, to stimulate more than the visual and audial senses.
J-PW The works tap into some of our contemporary fears about the increasing role of technology on our human interactions, but they are also funny and evoke this very human, often playful response. What is the place of humour in the exhibition?
MM I guess we both like this tragicomic and absurd twist on things. The tragicomic touch contains both the negative and the positive. We like this openness.
SD Our primary goal was to create a show where people really get to feel something, whatever it might be: love, disgust, repulsion, attraction. I think people find the show quite funny because it’s bizarre and unsettling. It plays with some very relatable human gestures and habits but massively amplifies them. Seeing and recognising yourself reflected in something other can be quite unsettling, but this play with the uncanny is also, I think, where the humour stems from.
J-PW There is this sense that artificial intelligence can outstrip human capabilities, do things infinitely quicker and better than humans, and that this almost always a positive thing. With this in mind, the human effort and craft that evidently went into the pieces seems to be offering a kind of retaliation to this idea. Was this something you felt when working towards the exhibition?
S D This is a very good and interesting question. To be honest, I don’t think we considered this aspect when making the pieces. It was indeed a lot of work but, truth be told, I’m sure any machine would be able to replicate all these pieces. The most valuable and unique elements of the pieces are the ideas and messages they send out to the world. I think that we as humans have a very powerful tool that artificial intelligence won’t have for a long time and that’s the capability to imagine things that doesn’t exist.
MM When I was making the silicone creatures it became a very intimate process. They are built up of many thin layers, and therefore required a lot of time and effort to bring to life. At moments I had to do small surgery like invasions into the creatures; it felt almost as if I was treating a living entity. The process raised this ambiguous feeling of being attached emotionally to objects. Time and effort is always required for intimacy to grow, and yes, this seems to be prioritised less and less in our daily lives.
J-PW Did working on these pieces change any of your opinions towards technology? Do you think machines can truly learn to become human?
SD I would say that generally I am excited about technology and it’s incredible potential to transform the way that we live. I guess that like many other things though, the potential could be used to do good or bad and not everyone agrees on what the good or the bad is. What is alarming is the speed of change and how little time we have to evaluate before the next colossal leap. Personally, I’m not so terrified of how machines develop or whether they can become human, what concerns me is how our increased dependence on machines affects human development and relationships.
MM It’s quite a question. I think I have become more open-minded to the fact that machines can replace humans in many ways, even with providing intimacy and physical contact. Humans are very adaptable – I don’t even notice most on the contact I have with artificial intelligence as it just seems so natural. Still, I maybe naïve, but I do deeply believe (or hope?) that we humans have a level of consciousness that machines can never replace. But this might just be based upon a fear of the results of such a shift. Maybe the reality is that it will take humanity so long to understand and mimic this unique human consciousness that it remains out of reach. ◉