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  • Writer's pictureChinyere Ibeh

Local museum features an exhibit focused on artificial intelligence

Originally Published: March 21, 2020


​The Museum of Contemporary Photography, housed at Columbia College Chicago, featured a new installment, “In Real Life” which spoke on our relationship with artificial intelligence.

One installation within the exhibit would be Maija Tammi’s “Three Androids and One Human.” In this installation, there are a series of four pictures where one’s human and the other three are androids. The catch is that they all look like hyper-realistic humans; it’s not disclosed which picture contains the human.

​In her own words, her work highlights the appearance of artificial intelligence. Why should AI have a human face? Why do we attribute human characteristics or human desires to AI? Why do we assume that they would like to live forever and take over the world?


“The work is more about questioning what makes us human, appearance is clearly not enough, and soul and/or consciousness we cannot explain how they come about,” explains Tammi.


During her artist residency in Japan, she saw human-looking androids in the local newspapers and online that were often portrayed in a way that one could easily know that it is a robot. Tammi wanted to do something that played “at the border of human and android.”


She eventually took the photos in 2016 in Japan, only having half-an-hour to take each photo. One photo, titled “One of Them is Human #1,” features an android named Erica who was made by Hiroshi Ishiguro. Ishiguro is a professor at Osaka University’s Intelligent Robotics Laboratory in Japan.


According to the New York Times, Erica was designed to have intellectual conversation along with certain body movement like blinking and nodding. During her half-hour with Erica, Tammi was accompanied by a researcher who helped position the android during the photoshoot.


The resulting photo, which one would have seen at the MoCP, was entered into the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize in 2017. The Times article was titled with the question “Do Androids Dream of Being Featured in Portrait Competitions” and it discusses the controversy surrounding the photo’s entry into the photo competition.


The controversy surrounded the fact that the rules state that the photo must taken by the entrant and the sitter – the subject of the photo – must be living. The point of Tammi taking and entering such a photo was to get people thinking about what makes us human.


As explained in Evening Standard, Tammi had bluntly stated on her application that the photo subject was in fact an android. She states that it was a test and she wanted to see if the time was right. Apparently it was as the photo was shortlisted for the award – she was essentially a finalist.


The photo of Erica and the other three photos were bought by the Museum of Contemporary Photography for this exhibition.

Another installation for In Real Life would be Stephanie Dinkins’

Conversations with Bina48. Dinkins engages in a conversation with a social robot prototype named Bina48, which stands for Breakthrough Intelligence via Neural Architecture, 48 exaflops per second. The Terasem Movement Foundation built Bina48 and it has the ability to have independent thought and emotion.

According to Stephanie Dinkins' personal website, the Terasem Movement Foundation is working to transfer the consciousness of a living person to Bina48 and to also have that consciousness to grow independent of the person she’s based on.


Dinkins and Bina48 has discussed family, racism, faith, robot civil rights, loneliness, knowledge and the robot’s concern for her robot friends that are treated like lab rats rather than people. Dinkins also explores the bounds of human consciousness and what it means to be human.


Dinkins has had her history with artificial intelligence with workshops like Project al-Kwarizmi, or PAK. PAK was a series of workshops for communities of color that uses art to help people understand how algorithms and big data impact their lives. PAK also helps citizens to empower them to do something about the impacts.


During her Lecture in Photography, Dinkins describes PAK as a store-front installation in downtown Brooklyn at a place named Recess Assembly. On the front door had a picture of a black woman with an megaphone served as welcome mat for some guests. Upon seeing the picture of the black woman, some would come in to check out the installation.


Dinkins also mentions a handwritten sign within the installation which states, “What does artificial intelligence need from you?” Dinkins explains that there was a nicer more professional sign that people didn’t like as much as the handwritten one.


Not The Only One, or N’TOO, was another project of Dinkins that revolved around artificial intelligence. On Dinkins’ website, N’TOO is described as the “multigenerational memoir of one black American family told from the ‘mind’ of an artificial intelligence with evolving intellect.”


The data that the AI storyteller is trained on is based on three generations of women from one family and it’s told in first person perspective of the AI. The family that’s featured in this project was Dinkins’ own family – her aunt on her mother sides, herself, and her niece.


Another installation in In Real Life contains Leo Selvaggio’s project, URME Surveillance. With this project, Selvaggio “critiques the extreme measures one must take to reclaim selfhood in the age surveillance.”

​Selvaggio’s installation begins when you climb up a flight of stairs and you’re met with a wall of motion activated cameras. Taking the stairs to the left, you come upon a huge poster featuring a small group of people who are wearing the same mask; the mask is in the likeness of Selvaggio’s face.


Moving from the huge poster, you then get a small mirror surrounded by post-it notes, a raincoat, a backpack, and picture of someone wearing the same mask. This part of the installation resembles the part of a house right by the front door. One post-it note even says, “Technology scares me.”


After the mirror, there are even more mirrors. These circular mirrors on stands vary in size and angles. Depending on where you would stand, you’d be big in one mirror and almost nonexistent in another mirror.


The last part of Selvaggio’s installation contained not only mirrors, but dressed up mannequins, security cameras, and the beloved mask. The mannequins are dressed up like young adults with fanny packs, mesh clothing, and an iPhone attached to their bodies.


The security cameras and the mirrors were in a circular blurb. There was one mirror in the middle surrounded by a ring of security mirrors which was surrounded by even more mirrors. It’s almost like this part of the installation was telling the viewer to watch themselves as they are being watched.


The very last installation was one from José Orlando Villatoro, a Salvadoran artist, features QR codes made out of various material. Código Humano, Spanish for "human code," features a QR code made from pennies and another made from a black, jagged stone.


As I was enjoying the installation, it occurred to me to pull out my phone and attempt to scan these QR codes. To my surprise, some of the QR codes actually worked and it led to surveillance footage. One such footage shows the intersection of E 58th Street and University Avenue, which is the main entrance of the University of Chicago’s quad.

There are two other installations, which are both videos. One being Trevor Paglen's Behold These Glorious Times!​ and Xu Bing's Dragonfly Eyes​. Paglen's installation is a ten-minute video on how AI learns how to be and how it works. Within the video, we see pictures of people's faces flashing very fast across the screen, showing us how AI is trained to see the world, especially faces and emotions.


​With Bing's installation, a fictional narrative is told through the surveillance footage found from databases and websites. With the help of voice actors, Dragonfly Eyes tells the story of woman who leaves her life at a Budhist temple to go on a journey love, labor and celebrity in China.

In Real Life at the Museum of Contemporary Photography discusses the new age technology in a way that hits closer to home. The specific use of security cameras and footage and a social robot can serve as a jarring reminder of the state of our lives pertaining to technology.

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