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Human aspect: on/off

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As in previous years, we whittled down the copious program of shows, exhibitions, and performances of the 2019 CZYNNIK LUDZKI/HUMAN ASPECT 18th Media Art Biennale to put together a choice assortment of videos and documentations to go on tour. The 2019 WRO on Tour program features the works of artists who examine the complexities of the contemporary nexus of the human, the technological, and the environment, capturing the turn towards the human as an initiator, a recipient, and sometimes a victim of rapid transformations. The selected artworks explore this shift as a central issue of our times and a relevant factor in current artistic practices.

Composed with the exhibition at Lviv’s Museum of Ethnography in mind, the present special selection of installations and videos adds up to a narrative in which the human factor, entangled as it is in less and less transparent systems of intelligent algorithms, comes to the fore in artistic gestures which deliberately envision the active involvement of viewers as cracking fissures and rifts in the technological overlay of reality.

At the same time, the status of the human in these artworks is mutable and susceptible to a variety of transpositions. Activated and invalidated, enhanced and undercut by technology, human agency is presented from multiple angles and in diverse social contexts as meandering its way against the changing coordinates of our age, rather than staying on a stable course.

Predictive Art Bot, an installation by DISNOVATION.ORG which opens the exhibition, is the winner of this year’s Critics and Editors of Art Magazines Award. Building on chance operations which were already used in art of the 20th century, the piece not so much interrogates the traditional expectations of originality in art, as it critically scrutinizes the very idea of artificial intelligence. It incessantly generates new artistic and curatorial concepts by combining – in real time – words from the headlines of articles posted on Internet websites. Fostered by the installation, the algorithmic play at and with unexpected clusters of meanings which gesture at a potential interference with the system of art is a call to retain critical distance.

In their performative installation Tablerror, Karina Marusińska and Alicja Kielan highlight the absurdity of optimization compulsion. Slight defects of china tableware, which turn it into waste by the standards of quality control and thus disqualify it as tradable commodity, are re-cast by the artists as assets to be shared with the participants of a performative banquet. The eponymous error refers to the impossibility to convey the real character of the event through its video documentation, rather than to the imperfections of the china. Since they are put on display in a museum cabinet, the crockery pieces and fragmentary documentations are viewed from behind a glass pane. As such, they are only a remote echo or a trace of the event whose meaning and appeal were produced by its participants.

Jana Shostak and Jakub Jasiukiewicz’s processual, multi-form Miss Polonia, represented in Lviv by the video March and a performance in which Miss Polonia makes her appearance at the opening of the exhibition, also questions conventionalized benchmarks of perfection. Shostak and Jasiukiewicz hack the system of beauty pageants by feeding it a bug of unaffected authenticity and a clear ethical stance, as the rights of women, minorities excluded for a variety of reasons, immigrants, and refugees are consistently articulated as human rights by Jana Shostak, a miss wannabe. In her quest for one trophy after another, she is accompanied by Jakub Jasiukiewicz, who serves as her impresario and registers her endeavors on film. Together, they seize any opportunity for media visibility to re-code the concept of beauty and the role of the artist in different terms.

However, shaken by a series of social media-generated dopamine highs, the human aspect has also another facet, which shows in the dissolution of empathy and mental autonomy, which are ousted by automated behaviors and uncomplicated, populist, or unabashedly violent ideologies. The media-mediated information flow and the flickering stream of news not only trigger the atrophy of meanings, but also breed indifference in the recipients. The works by Emmanuel Tussore and Dani Ploeger situate human agency amidst such processes in which we abandon values, relinquish ethical principles, and break the norms of solidarity.

In his video Sirènes, Tussore uses a simple editing trick to break down (into human aspects) the euphemistic term “refugee crisis” by showing individual people who disappear in the waves of a stormy sea with dignity and calm. In this way, he restores humanity to anonymous victims who perished while fleeing wars, persecutions, and poverty.

Dani Ploeger’s installation The Grass Smells So Sweet produces a perverse reconstruction of the artist’s experiences from the war in eastern Ukraine and Internet accounts of trauma-struggling veteran headshot survivors. The installation combines the physical setting and virtual reality tools to build a critical distance to the electronic entertainment system, in which one easily becomes oblivious to the fluctuations between real experience and a technical simulation of it.

Two other works – Nintendogs by Fabian Kühfuß and Oracle by Esmeralda Kosmatopoulos – also address the issues involved in the interception of human agency by robotic systems and machine learning automatics. In Kühfuß’s playful installation, a robot is continually stroking a virtual puppy. A human being, a potential owner of the game, is exempted from the obligations of empathy and care.

In her work, Kosmatopoulos uses the gesture of automatically picking words from predictive text in order to show how much linguistic semantic structures are appropriated by AI and in the next move infect our natural communication modes. All our text messages, all posts we e-mail to our loved ones generate a behavioral surplus on which intelligent algorithms feed all the time. By resizing this stream of semi-automatic messages, distance is promoted and reflection is invited.

The exhibition’s last installation piece is a work by two British researchers and art&science artists Anna Dumitriu and Alex May. Their Archaeabot: A Post Singularity and Post Climate Change Life-Form is a robotic creature which refers to archaea, the oldest known life-form on the Earth, inhabiting extreme chemical environments. The artists draw on the latest research on archaea and self-learning algorithms to stage a speculative vision of life continuing in the post-human future. By constructing an archaeon-like robot equipped with artificial intelligence (and as such theoretically capable of evolving), Dumitriu and May focus our imaginations on a radical future. Ravaged by human activity and extinction, the planet is only inhabited by one form of life – the bizarre Archaeabot, a hybrid of concepts of life, such as vitalist, productive, and pre-human zoe and bios, a changing political discourse on life. On this take, the human aspect is both irremovably immanent and entirely eliminated.

The Lviv show is the first presentation of a part of the 2019 WRO Biennale’s exhibition outside Wrocław. What makes this iteration of the Biennale’s thematic concerns truly special is its unique site-specificity. The Museum of Ethnography stores pieces of once-coherent collections of objects the uses of which may now be quite enigmatic, but which embody people’s aesthetic and functional sensibilities in other social and political realities. It is indeed an exceptional setting for an exhibition which addresses our current relations with technology. While the human aspect crafts new layers of reality, it simultaneously confronts the increasing autonomy of human-developed technologies.

WRO Media Art Biennale

Artistic director: Piotr Krajewski

Program director: Violetta Kutlubasis-Krajewska

Curator: Agnieszka Kubicka-Dzieduszycka

Collaboration: Małgorzata Sikorska

Organization: WRO Art Center and Festival of the audiovisual art TETRAMATYKA

TETRAMATYKA FESTIVAL
WRO Center for Media Art