Portrait of LONG XINRU. Courtesy the artist.
Portrait of LONG XINRU. Courtesy the artist.

Mining the Machine

Long Xinru

Also available in:  Chinese

“If artists can work with technology, then why can’t curators?” asked Long Xinru, when we met in a coffee shop close to her workplace, the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing. Long, who is both an artist and curator, is currently working on a number of projects focused on the relationship between art, science and technology. This includes teaching a course on data art and artificial intelligence (AI) at CAFA and programming the EAST Conference, a series of seminars and workshops aimed at developing and exchanging new ideas in the realm of art and technology, such as this year’s machine-learning workshop. 

Long is well-positioned to explore the fluid nature of technology, ascribing her natural tendency for using technology in her work to her lack of formal art training. After studying communication theory in the United States, she concentrated on critical writing in her postgraduate studies at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London. It was during this course that she first began to create artworks, initially in collaboration with others. Her curatorial explorations followed shortly afterward. In 2013, for her graduate project for the RCA, Long curated a show held at CAFA, presenting works from a selection of artists looking at data visualization technologies. 

In Long’s artworks, one sees a deep understanding of virtual reality, smart data and AI (or “machine-learning,” which she insisted was a more suitable nomenclature). Yet the artist-curator was quick to emphasize that while she may be informed, her knowledge falls short of scientists and engineers: “If the technology is already widely used, then it’s not the latest and most advanced—like quantum computing.” Nonetheless, she aims to engage with technology in ways that transcend the tired, superficial visual tropes that have come to signify advanced science—think visible machinic elements, electronic wires, robot humanoids—and instead focuses on the less glamorous aspects of these narratives, like “the human traits that support this seemingly powerful technology.”

Take, for example, the video and installation project Surveillance (2014), made in collaboration with Cedar Zhou. The work revolves around a fishbowl containing a pair of goldfish named Sharky and George. Two cameras record the movements of the fish, while a series of monitors around the fishbowl screen the real-time footage. Long manipulates the footage by superimposing digital captions onto the fish: one describing the animals’ current speed; the second showing the distance traveled; and a third showing a real-time news feed from Google. It looks, then, as if the two fish are discussing the world’s current affairs, just as humans often do, but as Long has used a Google news algorithm that skews toward stories deemed most likely to be popular, only a narrow view of global politics is given. The work metaphorically references the way we surf the web through the physical act of swimming, and the way we collect data through the monitoring of the speed and distance of the fish, setting out to show that although we may have seemingly unfettered access to information, it comes at a cost of being constantly monitored and influenced by certain unseen restrictions. 

In her curatorial work, Long has talked about what she calls the “metadomain”—a space opened up by the intermingling of art and technology where people can playfully engage with both disciplines. She aimed to facilitate such an inclusive space in her curation of “Surpassing r=a(1-sinθ)” at Beijing’s Qi Mu Space, for which she contributed the collaborative In the Anonymous Room (2018). For this work, she invited artists from different time zones to co-write a text using web-based software Google Docs, which subsequently featured in the exhibition. Themed on “life today and its technological environment,” the text was the result of various tasks that Long had presented to the artist-writers, including documenting everyday moments, and instigating academic discussions around philosophy and science. 

Long’s latest curatorial project, “Lying Sophia and Mocking Alexa,” earned her the 2018 Hyundai Blue Prize for Sustainability and will be the summer 2019 exhibition at Hyundai Motorstudio in Beijing’s 798 arts district. The exhibition intends to take a closer look at the myths surrounding machine-learning and explores the ways in which humankind’s relationships with these technologies can manifest. The focal point in the show is an imagined conversation that Long programmed between two famous AI figures: Alexa, a “virtual assistant” created by Amazon; and Sophia, a humanoid robot developed by Hong Kong-based company Hanson Robotics. Instead of a traditional exhibition text or wall panel, a conversation between the two chatbots will play through headphones, in which they discuss specific artworks in the show and how AI has interfered in and intersects with our lives. 

The exhibition came about due to Long’s fascination with these two very different materializations of sophisticated computers and how they each represent two contrasting, widely held perceptions of AI. As Long wrote in the exhibition proposal: “AI remains imperceptible and equivocal to the average citizen. Wrapped within information on mass media, AI has transformed into a story both the easiest to tell, and the most difficult to narrate.” Sophia, on one end of the spectrum, reveals humankind’s desire to create hyperrealistic humanoids indistinguishable from you or me. Yet despite Hanson Robotics’ attempts to create a realistic narrative around the feminine-looking Sophia—which included making her a Saudi Arabian citizen and a United Nations representative—we still fail to see her as a possible sentient being. In contrast is the bodiless Alexa, a robotic “assistant” that Long describes as possessing “a machine outlook” but who also seems to fulfill society’s dark fantasies about AI’s hidden sentient capabilities, with online videos purportedly showing the machine randomly laughing. Works in the exhibition will thus take a similarly skeptical, broad look at the current state of technology, including a video focusing on globally famous—and controversial—tech titans such as Jack Ma and Elon Musk by Jake Elwes, and an installation that uses data from a quantum computer to write love letters, created by artists Anna Ridler and Daria Jelonek, in collaboration with physicists from the University of Bristol. 

As we become more and more interested in the possibilities of technology—to solve our problems, make our lives easier, and even to replace aspects of society—Long’s work has a growing relevance. Future projects include translating a forthcoming book published by New York’s New Museum, The Art Happens Here: Net Art Anthology, and examining the practices of emerging Chinese artists working in Long’s areas of interest. The artist-curator, it seems, is destined to bring together the realms of art and technology.

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