Host. Hostel. Hostile. As Timothy Morton – philosopher and bearded-dragon-lizard tender – reminded this year’s Serpentine Marathon, hospitality and hostility are etymological siblings.
Rather than the woody embrace of Diébédo Francis Kéré’s arborescent Serpentine Pavilion, this year’s Marathon – the Serpentine’s annual festival of ideas – was hosted by City Hall, a Foster + Partners building on the Thames that recalls an articulated egg being strangled by a robot snake. It was an apt setting for the theme – ‘Guest, Ghost, Host: MACHINE!’ – taken by many participants as a launchpad for discussions of artificial intelligence and machine learning.
There were twists and turns en route. The 12-hour event was bookended by Gilbert & George’s gleefully irreverent antisermon ‘GODOLOGY!’ and an electronic performance by Brixton-based musician GAIKA. In between there was time for spectral beauty: Thomas Buckner sung poetry by Etel Adnan, and Zadie Xa and Jihye Kim, gorgeously costumed, performed a story of ghosts, tentacles and telephones. Hauntings aside (and there were a few) this was a day dominated by science, and struggles within and beyond the scientific community in relation to AI.
‘Being a person means being paranoid that you might not be human,’ noted Morton during his lickety-spit address on speciesism, strangeness and the bacteriocene. Paranoia – winningly described by the philosopher as his ‘favourite emotion’ – was the unnamed antihero in a day full of conceptual stretch. In an era of machine learning, the fear of not being human is the likely next step from the fear of the other not being human: a paranoia acknowledged by Professor Andrew Blake, Research Director at The Alan Turing Institute, who described AI as ‘an intellectual adventure’. Physicist Jimena Canales attempted a joint lecture with Apple’s virtual assistant Siri (stubbornly uncompliant) on the history of chatbots, and the paranoia that even if we know that the other is not human, we might prefer to pretend otherwise.
Design writer Alice Rawsthorn addressed the (well founded) paranoia that machine learning will reflect our systemic prejudices back at us as it loops through long-established patterns of behaviour. As for the paranoia that AI is going to take our jobs – even the creative ones? Fatima Al Qadiri has heard that future: a Beatlesesque track called Daddy’s Car generated by AI-software at the Sony Computer Science Laboratories in Paris last year. Al Qadiri assured us that it sounded about as fresh as ‘a fax that's been photocopied 100 times.’
A more plausible threat is that all roles in the creative community will one day be occupied by Hans Ulrich Obrist. Besides compèring the event with Bruce Forsythian flair, the Serpentine Gallery’s artistic director reached the anthropophagic apex of his conversational career by interviewing himself on stage (albeit performing as the constructed persona Ranjana Leyendecker).
Co-curatorial credits this year went to Raqs Media Collective. Early in the day a conversation between Shuddhabrata Sengupta of Raqs and Anupam Guha, a researcher in AI and computational linguistics, set the tone for subsequent encounters between artists and scientists. Sengupta had presented a mordant text full of wordplay and machine suicide. ‘Godzilla help us!’ in the face of it all, he exclaimed. This is no monster movie though, and as Guha explained, it’s already too late for a Hollywood ending. AI ‘is clearly at this point a force of nature’ and the worst response to it would most likely be crude resistance. ‘AI cannot be resisted – as with fire, chariots, the steam engine – what makes sense is to have a conversation about the way society is arranged around technology.’
Both Hito Steyerl and James Bridle offered visions of how artists might complicate a future with AI in interesting ways. Bridle described driving around Greece in a car that he had kitted out to learn from him and that was designed to get lost, prioritizing journey over destination. ‘The role of artist and activist is to explore the possibilities of these systems,’ explained Bridle, hoping too that ‘our future permits of a greater collaboration with our technologies’ than the closed machines peddled by Apple et al.
As an aid to prophecy, the Marathon throws out a handy list of the metaphors most likely to dominate artistic discourse in the coming year. Steyerl, however, warns against attempts to see into the future: ‘the minute humans become aware they're all-powerful, they're already handing power to systems’ – crystal ball gazing, ‘artificial stupidity’ and the invisible hand of the market among them. She herself, however, speculates that the 360˚ bubble vision provided by VR headsets are a precursor to life in the era of AI, where we are at the centre of all we perceive, and yet curiously invisible.
In describing occupied Kuwait as a haunted city, Fatima Al Qadiri and Shumon Basar recalled official military reports of US soldiers encountering djinn during Operation Desert Storm. Djinn, Al Qadiri explained, are closer to humans than angels, and like them could be both hostile and benign. As humans, we are host to a great many things, among them AI and bacteria. Djinn too – until recently, sickness was considered a form of possession. This is not ancient history: ‘In one of the Gulf States they have a sorcery crime unit in the same building they have a cyber crime unit.’
A necessary reminder of heterogeneity: beyond the lab, we’re moving at different speeds and in different directions. Actually existing AI and supernatural forces dating back millennia share time and space. It’s no longer possible to distinguish which is the host, and which the guest.
Main image: James Bridle, Flag for No Nations, 2016, temporary installation at Ellinikón, Greece. Courtesy: the artist