Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI

Sep 13, 2020

Child standing in front of screens.

Ian Cheng, Installation view: BOB, Central Pavilion, Giardini, Venice Biennale, Venice, 2019. Copyright Ian Cheng, Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels. Photography by Andrea Rossetti.

Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI
de Young museum \ Through June 27, 2021

What are the invisible mechanisms of current forms of artificial intelligence (AI)? How is AI impacting our personal lives and socioeconomic spheres? How do we define intelligence? How do we envision the future of humanity?

SAN FRANCISCO—As technological innovation continues to shape our identities and societies, the question of what it means to be or remain human has become the subject of fervent debate. Taking advantage of the de Young museum’s proximity to Silicon Valley, Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI arrives as the first major exhibition in the US to explore the relationship between humans and intelligent machines through an artistic lens. Organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, with San Francisco as its sole venue, Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI first opened on February 22, 2020 and was taken off public view just a few weeks later due to the temporary closure of the de Young Museum under the Shelter in Place regulation of the City of San Francisco. The exhibition will reopen to the public on September 25, 2020 and will be on view through Spring 2021.

“Technology is changing our world, with artificial intelligence both a new frontier of possibility but also a development fraught with anxiety,” says Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI brings artistic exploration of this tension to the ground zero of emerging technology, raising challenging questions about the future interface of human and machine.”

The exhibition, which extends through the first floor of the de Young and into the museum’s sculpture garden, explores philosophical, political, and poetic questions and problems raised by AI. Building on contemporary metaphors from the technological imagination—the digital alter ego, the model of swarm intelligence, the data-mining algorithm—it proposes a new visual vocabulary for describing the relationship between humans and machines. New and recent works by an intergenerational, international group of artists and activist collectives—including Zach Blas, Ian Cheng, Simon Denny, Stephanie Dinkins, Forensic Architecture, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Pierre Huyghe, Christopher Kulendran Thomas in collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann, Agnieszka Kurant, Lawrence Lek, Trevor Paglen, Hito Steyerl, Martine Syms, and the Zairja Collective—will be presented.

The Uncanny Valley
In 1970 Japanese engineer Masahiro Mori introduced the concept of the “uncanny valley” as a terrain of existential uncertainty that humans experience when confronted with autonomous machines that mimic their physical and mental properties. An enduring metaphor for the uneasy relationship between human beings and lifelike robots or thinking machines, the uncanny valley and its edges have captured the popular imagination ever since. Over time, the rapid growth and affordability of computers, cloud infrastructure, online search engines, and data sets have fueled developments in machine learning that fundamentally alter our modes of existence, giving rise to a newly expanded uncanny valley.

“As our lives are increasingly organized and shaped by algorithms that track, collect, evaluate, and monetize our data, the uncanny valley has grown to encompass the invisible mechanisms of behavioral engineering and automation,” says Claudia Schmuckli, Curator in Charge of Contemporary Art and Programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “By paying close attention to the imminent and nuanced realities of AI’s possibilities and pitfalls, the artists in the exhibition seek to thicken the discourse around AI. Although fables like HBO’s sci-fi drama Westworld, or Spike Jonze’s feature film Her still populate the collective imagination with dystopian visions of a mechanized future, the artists in this exhibition treat such fictions as relics of a humanist tradition that has little relevance today.”

In Detail
The Doors, a newly commissioned installation by Zach Blas, serves as a portal, both literally and metaphorically, into the corporate culture of Silicon Valley, the epicenter of AI development. Considering the widespread use of nootropics, or “smart drugs,” Blas highlights the way tech companies invoke counterculture ideas to support corporate goals. Visitors will step into an artificial garden—inspired by the enclosed gardens on nearby tech campuses—framed by a six-channel video projected onto glass panes; conveying a sense of algorithmic psychedelia, the installation aims to open new “doors of perception.”

Several works in the exhibition concern forms of collective intelligence. Ian Cheng’s digitally simulated AI creature BOB (Bag of Beliefs) reflects on the interdependency of carbon and silicon forms of intelligence. An algorithmic Tamagotchi, it is capable of evolution, but its growth, behavior, and personality are molded by online interaction with visitors who assume collective responsibility for its well-being. In A.A.I. (artificial artificial intelligence), an installation of multiple termite mounds of colored sand, gold, glitter, and crystals, Agnieszka Kurant offers a vibrant critique of new AI economies, with their online crowdsourcing marketplace platforms employing invisible armies of human labor at sub-minimum wages.

Simon Denny’s Amazon worker cage patent drawing as virtual King Island Brown Thornbill cage (US 9,280,157 B2: “System and method for transporting personnel within an active workspace,” 2016) (2019) also examines the intersection of labor, resources, and automation, particularly the environmental practices used to create sleek AI-based objects like Amazon’s Echo. Denny presents 3-D prints and a cage-like sculpture based on an unrealized machine patent filed by Amazon to contain human workers. Inside the cage an augmented reality application triggers the appearance of a King Island brown thornbill, a bird on the verge of extinction, casting human labor as the proverbial canary in the mine.

A group of intricate collage works by the Zairja Collective includes images of firing neurons used in brain research interlaced with open-pit renderings sourced from mining corporations. Inviting viewers to reflect on the psychological principles involved in AI-driven behavioral design, where people’s actions and connections are mapped and used for commercial purposes, the artists posit the mining of human behavior as a frontier of the data economy.

Hito Steyerl’s installation The City of Broken Windows addresses applications of AI that reinforce social and economic inequality and the potential counterforce offered by communal and artists’ acts of resistance. One of its short films depicts a group of technicians purposefully smashing windows to teach an algorithm how to recognize the sound of breaking glass, and another follows a group of activists through a New Jersey neighborhood as they work to keep decay at bay by replacing broken windows in abandoned homes with paintings.

Addressing the perpetuation of societal bias and discrimination within AI, Trevor Paglen’s They Took the Faces from the Accused and the Dead . . . (SD18) consists of a large gridded installation of more than 3,000 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.

Lynn Hershman Leeson’s new installation 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 installation critiques the problematic reliance on algorithmic systems, such as the military forecasting tool Predpol now widely used for policing, that categorize individuals into preexisting and often false “embodied metrics.”

Stephanie Dinkins extends the inquiry into how value systems are built into AI and the construction of identity. Her series of conversations with Bina48, a robot that lacks any understanding of race and gender, examines the social robot’s (and by extension our society’s) coding of technology, race, gender, and social equity.

In the same territory, Martine Syms posits AI as a “shamespace” for misrepresentation. For Mythiccbeing she has created an avatar of herself that viewers can interact with through text messaging. But unlike service agents such as Siri and Alexa, who readily respond to questions and demands, Syms’s Teeny is a contrarious interlocutor, turning each interaction into an opportunity to voice personal observations and frustrations about racial inequality and social injustice.

Countering the abusive potential of machine learning, the independent research agency Forensic Architecture pioneers an application to investigate human rights violations around the world. Model Zoo presents a group of algorithmic models developed to scan online images for objects used in such crimes. Christopher Kulendran Thomas’s video Being Human, created in collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann, poses the philosophical question of what it means to be human when machines can synthesize human understanding ever more convincingly. It employs AI-generated characters, so called “deepfakes,” of singer Taylor Swift and artist Oscar Murillo to reflect on issues of individual authenticity, collective sovereignty, and the future of human rights.

Lawrence Lek’s sci-fi-inflected film Aidol explores the relationship between algorithmic automation and human creativity in the future. It transports the viewer into the computer-generated “sinofuturist” world of the 2065 eSports Olympics. When the popular singer Diva enlists the super-intelligent Geomancer to help her stage her artistic comeback during the game’s halftime show, she unleashes an existential and philosophical battle that explodes the divide between humans and machines.

Pierre Huyghe’s Exomind (Deep Water)—a sculpture of a crouched female nude with a live beehive as its head—is nestled within the museum’s garden. With its buzzing colony pollinating the surrounding flora, it offers a poignant metaphor for the modeling of neural networks on the biological brain and an understanding of intelligence as grounded in natural forms and processes.

Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI is organized by Claudia Schmuckli, Curator in Charge of Contemporary Art and Programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

deyoungmuseum.org \ @deyoungmuseum

Artists in Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI
Zach Blas, b. 1981, Point Pleasant, West Virginia. Lives in London.
Ian Cheng, b. 1984, Los Angeles. Lives in New York.
Simon Denny, b. 1982, Auckland. Lives in Berlin.
Stephanie Dinkins. Lives in Brooklyn.
Forensic Architecture, founded 2010, London.
Lynn Hershman Leeson, b. 1941, Cleveland. Lives in San Francisco.
Pierre Huyghe, b. 1962, Paris. Lives in New York.
Christopher Kulendran Thomas, b. 1979, London. Lives in London and Berlin.
Annika Kuhlmann, curator, Lives in London and Berlin.
Agnieszka Kurant, b. 1978, Lodz, Poland. Lives in New York City.
Lawrence Lek, b. 1982, Frankfurt. Lives in London.
Trevor Paglen, b. 1974, Camp Springs, Maryland. Lives in Berlin.
Hito Steyerl, b. 1966, Munich. Lives in Berlin.
Martine Syms, b. 1988, Los Angeles. Lives in Los Angeles.
The Zairja Collective, formed in the Bay Area, 2015.

Uncanny Valley Exhibition Catalogue
Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI will be accompanied by an illustrated 225-page catalogue. Edited by exhibition curator Claudia Schmuckli, it will feature contributions by participating artists in addition to select philosophers, anthropologists, cultural theorists, sociologists, and engineers who offer a crisp and sophisticated understanding of the issues at stake.

Contemporary Art at the de Young
Overseen by Claudia Schmuckli, the Museums’ Contemporary Art Program launched in 2016 to present the work of living artists in dialogue with the Museums’ unique buildings and permanent collections. In the program’s first three years, installations by Carsten Nicolai / Alva Noto, Hilary Lloyd, Leonardo Drew, DIS, Ranu Mukherjee, and Matt Mullican transformed the de Young’s Wilsey Court. At the Legion of Honor, Urs Fischer, Sarah Lucas, Lynn Hershman Leeson, and Julian Schnabel each presented exhibitions in dialogue with the Beaux-Arts building and the collection of works by Auguste Rodin. The latest contemporary art exhibition Alexandre Singh: A Gothic Tale will be on view through April 12, 2020.

Visiting \ de Young
Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco, CA 94118

1.888.901.6645 (general public support, 24 hours/day)

Open Tuesdays–Sundays, 9:30 am–5:15 pm starting September 25, 2020. More information regarding tickets can be found at deyoungmuseum.org. John F. Kennedy Drive is closed to vehicular traffic from Kezar Drive to Transverse Drive. Paid parking is available in the Music Concourse garage as of September 21, 2020, which may be accessed from the Fulton Street and 10th Avenue entrance. For information on public transportation, please visit SFMTA.

Exhibition Organization
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, and 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.

About the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco oversee the de Young, located in Golden Gate Park, and the Legion of Honor, in Lincoln Park. It is the largest public arts institution in San Francisco and one of the most visited arts institutions in the United States. The de Young was established in 1895 and later renamed in honor of Michael H. de Young, who spearheaded its creation. The copper-clad landmark building, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, opened in 2005 with an observation level offering breathtaking 360-degree views of San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean. Reflecting a conversation among cultures, perspectives, and time periods, the collections at the de Young include American painting, sculpture, and decorative arts; arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas; costume and textile arts; and modern and contemporary art.

Media Contact
Helena Nordstrom, Associate Director of Communications \ hnordstrom@famsf.org \ 415.465.3531