What if you can enter into a relationship with artificial intelligence, like in the 2013 film Her? What if you can upload your consciousness to a computer drive, like in William Gibson’s Neuromancer? That’s the premise of Yesterday’s Fiction, Today’s Reality, the title for the 2021 edition of Microwave, an annual new media art festival. The exhibition at City Hall features works spanning themes of technology hacking, biohacking, artificial intelligence and surveillance.
In one illustrative case, Munich-based artists Tamiko Thiel and /p collaborated on “Lend Me Your Face” (2021), an investigation into deep fake technology. Audience members can upload their own images to the system, which are then animated to mimic speeches given by famous political figures such as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and climate activist Greta Thurnberg.
“Personally, I think deep fake technology is a horrendous thing,” says festival director and curator Joel Kwong. “I mean, what if the news we watch is all generated by technology?” It begs the question: is there an upside to this new tech? “I haven’t seen any so far,” she replies. But then she compares it to virtual reality, which isn’t exactly deep fake but shares its roots. And that has allowed us to enjoy a virtual version of Teresa Teng, the famous pop singer who died in 1995, or to travel underwater or in outer space, she notes. It’s questions like these that inform Kwong’s curatorial approach for this edition of the festival, which is marking its 25th anniversary. Its programme presents art that entertains while diving into the sinister implications if these new technological innovations were to be misused.
In the room next to Lend Your Face is “Google Maps Hacks” (2020), in which Berlin-based artist Simon Weckert pulls a hand cart filled with 99 second-hand iPhones to cause a virtual traffic jam, exposing potential gaps in the way the search engine calculates wait times. “I’m not telling people to hack Google, but it shows just how easy it is to hack the systems we rely on,” says Kwong.
Meanwhile, Belgian artist Dries Depoorter’s “Surveillance Speaker” (2018–2021) encourages audiences to manipulate the technology by interacting with it in a deliberate fashion. The surveillance camera looks like any other, but declares what it sees at regular intervals: “I see five people in the room.” One can’t help but wonder what it will say if everyone in the room hides behind the camera.
But Kwong also emphasises that Yesterday’s Fiction, Today’s Reality doesn’t take a negative view of technology. The curator wants people to ask more questions about the world we live in. “The audiences here are ahead of the curve when it comes to accepting tech, using tech, because Hong Kong is such a small city, so new and knowledge travel fast,” she says. “But the flip side of the coin is we’re too fast, and we don’t give ourselves the time to think, to question.”
It’s hard to deny the benefits of new technology, she adds. “But it’s always a double-edged sword. Few would say no to air conditioning during Hong Kong summers, but it contributes to global warming.”
In another room, “Red Silk Fate – Tamaki’s Crush” (2016), by British-Japanese artist Sputniko!, tells the story of a bioengineer who attempted to make her crush fall in love with her by creating a new species of silkworm by adding genes that produce oxytocin, a hormone associated with sex and relationship building amongst others. The title of the work is a wordplay on the “red thread of fate” in Chinese, Japanese and Korean mythology, which says two people connected by the red thread are destined to be lovers.
The story is presented in an entertaining music video, with Sputniko! playing the role of a charismatic scientist. It’s the perfect mishmash of low and high culture, something that Kwong has a knack for doing. For the 2017 edition of the festival, Kwong selected works that were “Insta-worthy” to hit home one of the themes of the exhibition: everyone can have their 15 minutes of fame.
Throughout Yesterday’s Fiction, Today’s Reality are quotes from well known science-fiction novels, including Chinese novelist Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem. Kwong says sci-fi offers a good entry point into our understanding of the latest development in science, but also the implications it has on human society. She points to The Matrix, in which humans exist in a simulated reality, and Dung Kai-cheung’s Beloved Wife, where someone’s brain can be uploaded to the cloud. “It seems unreal, but is it really impossible?” asks Kwong, pointing out that labs like Elon Musk’s Neuralink are already doing research on the latter.
If yesterday’s fiction is today’s reality, then it goes to say that today’s fiction will become tomorrow’s reality. Will that reality be kind to humans? The fun, aspirational side of technology is embodied in Hong Kong-based Uruguayan artist Alvaro Cassinelli’s “The Toro Bots and the Generative Gardens” (2014–2021). While the two lantern robots were built by Cassinelli, they are programmed to be autonomous: the way they interact with the audience at the exhibition is out of the artist’s control. One is more outgoing and perhaps a bit naughtier, nudging at passersby, while the other is shy, sticking to the walls and avoiding the crowd.
French artist Justine Emard’s “Co(AI)existence” (2017) gives an optimistic view of a future where humans and AI could co-exist. In the video, Japanese actor and dancer Mirai Moriyama uses signals and body language to interact with a humanoid developed by researchers at Osaka University. He dances around the humanoid, a tube light in his hands seeming to guide the latter to mimic his movements and to eventually interact with him, resulting in a mesmerising show.
Then the video suddenly cuts to a data screen, supposedly showing the impact various data points have on the way the humanoid reacts to Moriyama’s movements. It reminds us that all interaction relies on a series of codes and signals. If viewed through that lens, how artificial intelligence communicates and interacts isn’t so different from how humans do.
“For me, human or AI are categorisations, like dog, cat and hippo,” says Kwong. “There is also the question, do we already have a different make-up from our ancestors? [Modern medical procedures] means we now have nails punched into our bodies, and lodged there, permanently. This would have been a really bizarre idea for our ancestors.”
Kwong says she is a fan of American inventor Ray Kurzweil, who predicted that the acceleration of technology will be driven by AI from 2020 onwards. The only way human beings can survive, she says, is to co-exist with new tech. “There is no stopping it at this point,” she says. “Many have tried to stop it, but in vain. I mean, AI permeates our life.”
New innovations in tech and science are also constantly re-moulding our morals and ethics. “Red Silk Fate – Tamaki’s Crush” is entertaining but it also hints at the darker side of bio-tech: to what extent are we willing to hack our bodies—or indeed, those of laboratory animals—in the spirit of scientific research? “I think about these questions a lot,” says Kwong. “If we have to experiment on mice, cats, monkeys for the betterment of human society, is that morally wrong? I don’t think our morals will disappear, but they will keep changing, as society changes.”
The Microwave International New Media Arts Festival runs until November 14, 2021. Click here for more information.