green room with a display shelf with items on it in the center surrounded by potted plants

Zach Blas, The Doors, 2019. Installation view from Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI, de Young, San Francisco, 2020. Co-commissioned by Edith-Russ-Haus für Medienkunst, Germany; de Young Museum, USA; and Van Abbemuseum, Netherlands. Courtesy of the artist. © Gary Sexton Photography

Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI

In today’s AI-driven world, increasingly organized and shaped by algorithms that track, collect, and evaluate our data, the question of what it means to be human has shifted. Uncanny Valley is the first major exhibition to unpack this question through a lens of contemporary art and propose new ways of thinking about intelligence, nature, and artifice.

Artists and collectives on view

Zach Blas
Ian Cheng
Simon Denny
Stephanie Dinkins
Forensic Architecture
Lynn Hershman Leeson
Pierre Huyghe
Christopher Kulendran Thomas and Annika Kuhlmann
Agnieszka Kurant
Lawrence Lek
Trevor Paglen
Hito Steyerl
Martine Syms
Zairja Collective

In depth

With nearby Silicon Valley driving the development of artificial intelligence, or AI, Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI arrives as the first major West Coast museum exhibition to thicken the discourse around AI through a lens of artistic practice. Rather than trafficking in speculative fantasies, the exhibition looks at current applications of AI to redefine the coordinates of the uncanny valley. It builds on contemporary metaphors from the technological imagination — the digital alter ego, the model of swarm intelligence, the data-mining algorithm — to propose a new visual vocabulary for describing the relationship between humans and machines.

Several works in the exhibition concern forms of collective intelligence — in both nature and culture — that inform or define the design and mechanisms of AI. Ian Cheng’s BOB (Bag of Beliefs) (2018 – 2019) translates this idea into a virtual life-form in the shape of a snake that responds to both its internal programming and to input from its audience. Agnieska Kurant’s works in this exhibition incorporate crowdsourced information and labor that together point to the new economy of “ghost work” fueling many AI platforms and devices. 

Simon Denny’s sculpture and relief works critique the humanitarian and ecological costs of today’s data economy, particularly the destructive environmental practices used to create sleek AI-based objects like Amazon’s Echo. The Zairja Collective’s intricate collages also concern mining — both of physical resources and of data. Overlaying images of firing neurons with open-pit designs sourced from mining corporations, their works in this exhibition invite viewers to consider the relationship between the two subjects.

The independent research agency Forensic Architecture uses spatial methods and machine learning to investigate human rights violations around the world. Their work in this exhibition includes a group of algorithmic models developed to scan online images for objects used in such crimes. Invested in humanitarian causes, the group is equally concerned with exposing the ways that machine learning can be exploited and misused, particularly in the types of offenses they investigate. Trevor Paglen also takes on the myth of neutrality in machine learning. His They Took the Faces from the Accused and the Dead . . . (SD18) (2020) consists of a large gridded installation of more than three thousand mugshots from the archives of the American National Standards Institute. The institute’s collections of such images were used to train early facial-recognition technologies — without the consent of those pictured.

Hito Steyerl’s video installation addresses applications of AI that reinforce social and economic inequality and the potential counterforce offered by communal and artistic acts of resistance. Martine Syms’s interactive, video-based work presents an avatar of the artist named Teeny, which viewers can communicate with via text message. Teeny’s assertiveness and self-absorption position her as an “anti-Siri,” says Syms, and upend the expectation of gendered obedience perpetuated by AI-based assistants.

Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Shadow Stalker (2019) gives viewers the opportunity to glimpse their digital alter ego — the trail of data they have created online — while urging them to take control of their data profiles. The intersection of identity, subjectivity, and technology is also the subject of Stephanie Dinkins’s ongoing series of conversations with Bina48, a robot created by Hanson Robotics that lacks any understanding of race and gender. Christopher Kulendran Thomas’s film Being Human (2019), created in collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann, questions the philosophical foundations of humanism in the age of AI simulations known as deepfakes. Lawrence Lek similarly considers the ways that AI technology is rendering the distinction between humans and machines more permeable in his sci-fi-inflected film AIDOL (2019).

Finally, Zach Blas’s video installation serves as a portal, both literally and metaphorically, into Silicon Valley’s corporate culture — the other uncanny valley of AI. Considering the widespread use of nootropics, or “smart drugs,” he highlight the ways that tech companies invoke counterculture ideas to support corporate goals.

In the news

  • Art can sometimes leave viewers scratching their heads, wondering what it all means. Not these pieces. On the de Young Museum’s floor, the tensions between technology companies and the labor they employ is laid bare.

    Arielle Pardes, WIRED,
  • Uncanny Valley will leave you questioning just how far we want to go down the rabbit hole.

    Martine Paris, Forbes,


Stephanie Dinkins, 'Conversations with Bina48,' 2014-present, video still. Courtesy of the artist


This exhibition is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Presenting Sponsor
Lisa & Douglas Goldman Fund

Lead Support
The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts

Major Support
Deutsche Bank
Nion McEvoy and Leslie Berriman
Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
The Carl & Marilynn Thoma Art Foundation
The Transformations of the Human Program at the Berggruen Institute
The Paul L. Wattis Foundation

Significant Support
Marian Goodman Gallery

Additional support is provided by GameOn Technology, Gladstone Gallery, and Kaitlyn and Mike Krieger.

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco gratefully acknowledge the contributions of the Transformations of the Human Program at the Berggruen Institute to the exhibition catalogue which is published with the assistance of the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Art Foundation. In-kind support is provided by Room & Board.

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s Contemporary Arts Program is made possible by Presenting Sponsor the Lisa & Douglas Goldman Fund. Major support is provided by Nion McEvoy and Leslie Berriman and The Paul L. Wattis Foundation. Additional support is provided by Joachim and Nancy Hellman Bechtle, Kate Harbin Clammer and Adam Clammer, Jeffrey N. Dauber and Marc A. Levin, Shaari Ergas, Richard and Peggy Greenfield, Katie Hagey & Jill Hagey in memory of their mother, Mary Beth Hagey, Kaitlyn and Mike Krieger, Fred Levin and Nancy Livingston–The Shenson Foundation, Lore Harp McGovern, Jessica and Jason Moment, Katie Schwab Paige and Matt Paige, Rotasa Fund, Chara Schreyer, Mr. and Mrs. Charles R. Schwab, David and Roxanne Soward, Gwynned Vitello, Vance Wall Foundation, Zlot Buell + Associates, and the Contemporary Support Council of the Fine Arts Museums.

Courtesy notice to attendees: The interactive portions of this exhibition rely on outside platforms and software services vendors including the following: Twilio, DexterRun, Art Processors, Metis Suns. If you choose to participate in the interactive portions of this exhibition you may be sharing your data with one or more of these vendors subject to their privacy policies. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco is not affiliated with these vendors and will not be collecting or using any data you may provide to these vendors.

Currently on view