DUBAI—THE GREAT DESERT CAPITAL of Starchitecture-on-Speed and the distinct Khaleeji brand of Hypercapitalism-as-Luxury-Entertainment that artists Fatima Al Qadiri and Sophia Al Maria famously dubbed “Gulf Futurism”—is starting to show its age. In an era when every other province has a bargain-bin Zaha Hadid or two, the skyscraper archipelagos and manmade islands just look… well, dated. As theorist and first-time visitor Mi You so pithily put it, “This feels like a Little China.”
Where once desert sandscapes readily lent themselves to fantasies of Life on Mars, now “the future” has taken on more digital contours in the Gulf. In October 2017, Saudi Arabia made headlines by granting citizenship to Sophia the Robot, a sultry animatron that, for all her algorithmic charm is, as computational philosopher Jordi Vallverdú bluntly admits, “a very stupid machine.” This was the same month Saudi Arabia announced that human women would be able to start receiving driver’s licenses in a country that still struggles to provide minimum rights to its 11-million-strong migrant work force—female domestic workers in particular. But I guess we still call it “progress”?
For its part, the United Arab Emirates are working to put new technologies to use as more than minxy photo ops. In addition to its (female!) Minister for Happiness, the UAE recently announced the pioneering appointment of a “Minister of Artificial Intelligence.” Meanwhile, the Dubai Future Foundation is busy with forward-facing initiatives like the Museum of the Future, set to open in 2019; a citywide 3D printing strategy (housed in the entirely-3D-printed “Office of the Future”); and the “Global Blockchain Council,” which aims to integrate blockchain technologies into every level of the municipal administration.
Against this backdrop, the Global Art Forum embarked on its twelfth installment, “I Am Not a Robot,” a three-day series of talks and film screenings exploring what it means to be human through the management, assessments, and confessions of our fears, hopes, and dreams around the technologies we have created, but can’t seem to control. Sophia was a no-show (she was giving the keynote speech at a UN conference on technology in Nepal), but the Global Art Forum still played out like a reverse Mystery Science Theater 3000, with the human panelists commenting on sundry pop-culture robots: from Alpha 60, the robot pulling the strings in Godard’s 1965 classic Alphaville, to the Terminator, to Marvin the Paranoid Android, to 540 terrier-sized automatons, shimmying in sync for a Chinese New Year’s broadcast.
The Global Art Forum is situated in a swanky, aggressively air-conditioned tent—just across an artificial canal from Art Dubai, which concurrently opened its twelfth edition on March 21—at the Madinat Jumeirah, a sprawling beachside resort complex in the shadow of the Burj Al Arab. The fair continues its steady development, deepening ties with returning galleries like Franco Noero, Galerie Krinziger, Victoria Miro, Continua, Vermelho or Sfeir Semler, alongside an increasingly formidable local gallery scene, led by the likes of The Third Line, Green Art Gallery, Carbon 12, Grey Noise, Lawrie Shabibi, and Galerie Isabelle van den Eynde. Incidentally, all are located at Alserkal Avenue, the hip mixed-use warehouse complex that this year celebrated its tenth anniversary with an intimate corn-derived, six-course menu at the upscale conceptual-catering platform, Inked. Why corn? “Well, it’s in honor of Frida Kahlo.” Okay, so why Frida Kahlo? “Last year it was Dali.” Not satisfied with these answers, I appealed to Alserkal Avenue’s director, Vilma Jurkute. “It’s our tenth year,” she shrugged. “We have to keep things interesting.”
While Art Dubai has trimmed the regional accents that once gave the fair its boutique feel, it keeps things interesting with features like the Abraaj Group Art Prize, the Modern Section with a special exhibition from Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, and The Room, an artist commission that went this year to the GCC, the Khaleeji art collective that leapt Athena-like from the fair’s VIP lounge in 2013. GCC transformed the transitional space flanking the Global Art Forum tent into “The Green Room,” where they hosted live tapings of GOOD MORNING GCC! with daily segments on lifestyle, fashion, and a cooking demonstration from Kuwaiti celebrity chef and wedding singer, Sulaiman Al Qassar. “I remember the first time I saw him live was at my cousin’s wedding when I was thirteen,” GCC’s Khalid Al Gharaballi reminisced. “He was wearing this purple robe with these giant diamonds for buttons, like nothing Kuwait had ever seen. He was fantastic.”
For this year’s Abraaj Group Art Prize, curator Myriam Ben Salah brought together the formidable shortlist of Basma Al-Sharif, Neil Beloufa, Ali Cherri, and prize winner Lawrence Abu Hamdan, whose gripping new video, Walled / Unwalled, 2017, explores the ways our molecular information—sounds, smells, heat—can legally be used against us as evidence on a cellular level. The Abraaj Group has also actively collaborated with fledgling foundation Art Jameel, agreeing to donate works from its collection of past prize winners to the exhibition that will mark the Jameel Arts Centre’s grand opening in Dubai this November (11/11!) Meanwhile, Art Jameel has linked up with the London-based Delfina Foundation. “In some ways, it’s really amazing to see all these powerful forces in the region coming together, but it’s also somewhat worrying when they become tied to a single financial source,” a confidant told me, nudging to the recent announcement that Abraaj Group would be selling some shares, as well as rumors it might also not be back as the fair’s main sponsor next year. (Though the addition of BMW to this year’s roster seems to suggest the fair has little to worry about, sponsorship-wise.)
Amid this flurry of activity, the Global Art Forum offered a deep dive into what commissioner Shumon Basar describes as “the strange texture that we inhabit today,” in which artifacts we once used to tell us about the future now confront us with our present. Conceived alongside codirectors Marlies Wirth, a curator at MAK, and Noah Raford, the “Futurist-in-Chief” of the Dubai Future Foundation, “I Am Not A Robot” lifted its visual identity from captured stills of disrupted Google Map Street Views, with bare legs half-rendered or heads gone missing. This fragmentation echoed in the program’s approach to the myriad little cultural biases in how we experience artificial intelligence, from a panel on non-Western AI; to a broadcast of “Daddy’s Car,” the first AI-generated pop song (sort of); to a series of film screenings from Cinema Akil, including a Q+A with the brilliant filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu; to an interactive performance by Isabel Lewis and Asad Raza, workshopped on site with audience members. The more its panelists talked about machines, however, the clearer it became that the ultimate question driving the forum was what it means to be human.
Paul Feigelfield’s palindromic opening presentation,“IAMAI,” zoomed in on specific moments from the “arms race between man and machine” in an attempt to distinguish between artificial intelligence and machine learning that comes from AI techniques. Quoting pioneering computer scientist Yann Lecun’s proposal that we think of AI “as an extension of our brains, the way a car is an extension of our legs,” Feigelfeld traced this vocabulary back to Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, which discussed media as a prosthesis of the human species. “So basically, our most advanced media practice has finally caught up to the level of 1950s media theory,” Feigelfeld wryly summarized.
The following panel embarked on understanding non-Western AI, seeking to break from, as Basar put it, the “Cartesian, atomized, self-deterministic West towards Eastern traditions of more expansive definitions of self.” Vallverdú broke this down into specifics, with a comparative survey of how different countries relate to our thinking machines. “The basics of AI do not change. Cultural history doesn’t transform how a country makes robots, but it does color the idea of what a robot is.” He pointed out that American or European robots are more likely to be designed for functionality, whereas in Japan or South Korea, the machines tend to be more anthropomorphic, with an eye towards emotional services or companionship. He paused to consider the oddity of the Western cultural tradition of imagining that robots—something we made—are secretly out to kill us. “But we don’t always think our kids will kill us, do we?”
The next panel addressed fears that AI will replace us work-wise, leaving us to develop identities and concepts of time not derived from “what we do for a living.” The Dubai Future Foundation’s Jessica Bland quickly shut down the talk’s premise, clarifying that automation doesn’t have to take entire jobs away, only certain tasks within those jobs. The key is to retain control over machines, learning how to make them work for us. Instead of promoting the post-scarcity utopia of “fully automated luxury communism,” we should orient around the notion of “fully inclusive laborious computation.” In a later artist round-table, Yuri Pattison would counter with the case study of Mechanical Turks, Amazon’s crowdsourced labor pool that lets you use human beings as “artificial artificial intelligence.” Pattison outsourced images by asking its on-call taskforce to submit the views from their windows, thereby revealing “the cogs in the machine,” including the locations and conditions of labor of this “digital sweatshop.”
Charismatic product designer Simone Rebaudengo would blur the lines between human and object even further in a rollicking forecast that sought to “stretch the muscle of imagination about the future.” He began with the assurance that we will find machines just as frustrating in the future. (“If they were really that smart, why would they bother with us?”) In ridiculing the intelligence of “smart” devices like toasters (“What would a toaster need to tell us?”), he came up with “Addicted Products,” a project that imagined a toaster-driven market, in which the appliance decides if it wants to work for you (if not, it would send a distress signal and someone would arrive to pick it up, leaving the former owner with a plaque announcing the toaster’s absence.) “It’s weird for an object to judge us,” Rebaudengo grinned. Just as weird? Requests for these toasters poured in from all over the world. “So many bots actually really wanted a toaster,” the designer recalled.
The crux of Rebaudengo’s presentation focused on manufactured ideological biases: why is it that we model AI after humans, instead of meeting them in the middle and trying to make ourselves more machine? To that end, he developed a series of VR experiences that would make people “feel like things”—indulging in the joy (or exquisite agony) of being a Roomba, an electric outlet, or a portable fan. The next day, Isabel Lewis and Asad Raza would pick up on this thread with an interactive performance that encouraged the audience to picture their neighbors as objective surfaces in an attempt to isolate the particular associations of being human.
The highlight of Day Two was a panel on what Hans Ulrich Obrist calls “my new favorite toy”: blockchain (Move over urgent and OMG.) As panel moderator Ben Vickers explained, talking about blockchain is “like discussing a sewer system. It’s an infrastructure, an underlying technology.” The magnetic Jaya Klara Brekke then proceeded to walk the audience through the basics of this “sewer” and its consensus protocols, which in her captivating logic, renders blockchain something of a “truth machine.” Rather than a sewer, she proposed thinking about Blockchain as a phone, capable of supporting limitless apps, as opposed to, say, a Swiss Army knife, which must be designed anew for each additional function. When pushed about her optimism for the future, however, Brekke demurred, reasoning that she prefers to focus on the political and ethical dimensions of the present: “I don’t speculate, because there is a lack of attention to the now.”
Questions of truth, ethics, and the machine continued to swirl on the final day, when philosopher and writer Aaron Schuster wrapped things up with “Am I A Sad Robot: The Clinic of AI.” The hilarious, insightful and, at times, even heartbreaking lecture picked up the trail of “artificial neuroses.” “If we give machines advanced levels of self-awareness, freedom, and even desire, will we not create psychotic, perverted, or neurotic robots?” Schuster posited. He then challenged why machines culturally tend to be portrayed as psychotic, hellbent on destroying humanity (cue Terminatorfootage), turning instead to Norbert Weiner’s chapter on “Cybernetics and Psychopathology,” which proposed approaching human psychology using the models of bugs, breakdowns, overloads or excesses in the traffic. By this logic, a person on the verge of a nervous breakdown would just be a person operating at their maximum capacity. In this sense, “the potential for mental illness is inscribed in our brain function—the price to be paid for having the best developed nervous system.”
Here Schuster shifted the discussion to a case study of Marvin the Paranoid Android from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams’s adapted 1978 radio broadcast. (In clips from the BBC2 production, Marvin drops pearls of lament in Alan Rickman’s impeccable timbre: “Life… Don’t talk to me about life,” and “It’s the people you meet in this job that really get you down. The best conversation I’ve had was 34 million years ago and that was with a coffee machine.”) As Schuster points out, Martin’s predicament is that his supremely evolved intelligence has so far been relegated to menial labor, never even approaching his true potential. “He’s like the immigrant laborer of the universe,” Schuster explained. “And this excess of intelligence over usefulness subjectivizes as depression.” This leads to the question, “what if intelligent thinking machines realized the boredom of their tasks and stop working?” In this scenario, humans would have to take on a task many never imagined: the psychologists for their machines.
No, Siri, how can I help you?