MUTEK.SF first edition: art and tech intertwining in the jungle of the CaliforniaAcademy of Sciences

Updated: Sep 11, 2019

Electronic music, video installations, and lighting sculptures set the mood for an evening that celebrated the complex and co-dependent relationship between art and technology. Inside Nightlife, the notable Thursday night event at the California Academy of Sciences, After Tomorrow and MUTEK San Francisco gathered French and California-based artists, creative directors, scientists and entrepreneurs for an open discussion about how art and technology intertwine today. Divided into three panels, the event aimed to initiate a debate on how virtual reality, artificial intelligence and robotics are affecting the art industry and the potential for human creativity to layer emotion into technology.

Inside the Tusher African Hall, surrounded by a seemingly primitive environment complete with zebras, dioramas and monkeys, the audience was brought into the immersive world of virtual reality. Vincent Cavaroc, artistic director of the Tropisme festival, a digital culture and music event in Montpellier, Cyril Guiraud, entrepreneur, musician, and founder of doubleOone, a platform that uses VR technology to enhance the experience of the Recording Studio, and Han Jin, co-founder and CEO of Lucid, a technology company known for their LucidCam, the first VR 180 3D camera, shared their thoughts on how VR is shaping the way in which people and artists listen to, feel, produce and live through the music. "Virtual reality has allowed musicians to expand the horizons of live concerts," says Cavaroc. "We can now add assets that the real world doesn’t allow, and amplify the artistic vision of a show or event in any number of ways.” For an example of the kind of impact this approach can have, think of the Eminem concert at Coachella Valley Music Festival in 2018. During the show, the use of augmented reality technology enabled Eminem to project virtual holograms into the live concert that considerably enhanced the audience experience.

“In a way, that is what we are trying to do at doubleOone,” says founder Cyril Guiraud. “Our goal is to give people the opportunity to be in a recording studio while their favorite artists are working. People can see what the artists are doing, how they work, and what kind of conversations they have, all while drinking wine at home. This approach completely changes and intensifies the relationship between the viewer, the musician and the music. It becomes more emotional and meaningful."

In order to achieve this goal, technology plays a very important role. “LucidCam,” explains Han Jin, “enables people to create content and share it in new ways.” While Jin was finishing explaining the functionality of the technology, a woman in the audience raised her hand to ask the panelists what they thought their most powerful and beautiful experiences through virtual reality had been. Giuraud answered, "The real world and the brain are the most beautiful virtual reality experiences. Just close your eyes and you are immersed in a world filled with your own content.” And that is what VR does. It assists your brain in “crossing over” to these other worlds, or something along those lines.

Panel 2: "How do artificial intelligence and art intertwine?", with Josette Melchior, Alicia Sabuncioglu, Dorothée Chabas and Juliette Bibasse. At California Academy of Sciences.

Commanding the center of the room were Josette Melchior, founder of the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, a San Francisco non profit dedicated to applying art and technology as a means to create social and civic impact; Alicia Sabuncioglu, Head of Global Partnerships for Education and Art and Culture program at Google; Dorothée Chabas, neurologist, painter and expert in neuroesthetics; Juliette Bibasse, a Paris-based digital art producer, curator and creative director. The aim of this panel was to demonstrate to the audience how the use of human knowledge can inspire the development of Artificial Intelligence in the fields of art and how AI might channel and direct this explosion of wisdom. “Our goal at the Gray Area Foundation is to humanize technology throughout the arts,” said Melchior. “We want to become a landmark for international artists and performers and provide a place where they can exhibit their latest achievements at the intersection of art and technology.”

In 2016, Melchior curated the first exhibition that paired artificial intelligence network with artists, which helped establish the artists and machine intelligence program at Google. Now Google is one of the global leaders in using technology to preserve the art heritage of many countries. “At Google,” said Sabuncioglu, “we now work with more than 500 different art and cultural institutions all over the world. We help museums, galleries, and historical places to maintain their collections and keep them alive and available for future generations.” 

Sabuncioglu and her team recently began to collaborate with Cyark, an Oakland-based non profit organization focused on building a digital archive and record of the world’s cultural heritage. “There are many places in the world where natural forces, like earthquakes, have damaged archeological or historical sites. One of our projects with Cyrak was to help document and archive the interiors of a Buddhist temple in Bagan, Myanmar, that had been partially destroyed by an earthquake. Thanks to the digital reconstructions, people, now and in the future, will be able to see what is inside these sacred locations.”

Meanwhile, neuroscientist and painter Dorothée Chabas is focusing on immersing herself into the human brain and how it works. “Artificial Intelligence is trying to mimic what the brain does. We study the complex function of the brain to see how those functions can be applied to technology and become more useful to humanity.” The point here is not if the next generation of artificial intelligence can replace work, but rather how technology can learn from humans and help us solve or improve various aspects of our lives. “As a painter, I am interested in seeing how this knowledge can be applied to the arts.” 

This curiosity was immediately satisfied by one of Juliette Bibasse’s latest projects, Artists et Robots, an exhibition now on view through July 9, at the Grand Palais, in Paris. It provides an immersive and interactive experience, one that leads us into a virtual world where time and space overlap. “For the show, all the artists designed work that explores and investigates how artificial intelligence is transforming human existence and affecting their art.” For the exhibition, Bibasse worked with a colleague to produce Memo Akten, a live performance for 16 percussionists and light inspired by the relationship between man and machine and the conflicts between science, technology, culture, tradition and religion.

Panel 3: "Building the ultimate live performance: robot or augmented human?", with Alain Mongeau, Joshua Zayren and Jessica Riskin. At California Academy of Sciences.

As the arts are becoming smarter and technology more refined, how are we going to engage Robots or Augmented Humans in this meaningful relationship? Alain Mongeau, founder and artistic director of Mutek, a festival that explores the intersection between electronic music, sound research and digital creativity; Joshua Zayner, biohacker and founder of The Odin, a company based in Oakland that makes kits and tools that allow anyone to make unique and usable organisms at home; Jessica Riskin, professor of European History and the History of Science at Stanford University, have come up with interesting suggestions and projects. For Mongeau, this was the first Mutek festival in The Bay Area. “The festival is now very popular in Canada,” he says. At the beginning, the focus was more about music, but as the festival evolved along with the technology, it is now open to a variety of art performances.” The subject of modifying our genes to change us and explore the possibilities of what genetic engineering can bring to art became a topic as Zayner began to explain his take to the audience. “With all that we have available today, we can start considering to change our genes. If in the past you were too short, you couldn’t do anything about it. But in the future, thanks to the development of cutting edge technology and genetic engineering, you can change yourself, and be tall, if that’s what you would prefer. This opens up endless possibilities.” In 2014, he worked with the artist Lynn Hershman Leeson to build an art installation about genetic engineering that attempted to reverse engineer a person's DNA from their picture. Also, in pursuit of these endless possibilities, he engineered a musical instrument, the Chromochord, which stimulates light, oxygen, and voltage-sensing proteins and translates their reactions into music. 

 Professor Riskin, exploring the connection between the past and the present moment, traced an historical path of the advancement of science and technology from the 1st century B.C.E. to now. At one point, as the debate went deep into the topic, there was one question that was very difficult to answer: “will future generations of robots be able to feel as humans do?" Even though now on the market we are seeing some humanoid type creations that can mimic the emotion of humans, the field is still very much in its infancy. “At the moment, there are few companies trying to use machine learning to build robots that can express human feelings, like joy and sadness. Maybe one day we will see robots experiencing the same natural feelings we have.” Emotions and feelings are complex universes to explore and it could be interesting to see how technology and art can replicate these intriguing worlds, most of all because they are what makes us human. Now the question is, do we really want to have robots experience human emotions? If so, to what end? So they would feel empathy with us? How will artists, engineers and technology use artificial emotions to create installations, sculptures and performances?

The night ended with the audience and the panelists mingling in the Tusher African Hall, where some sought to ask more questions, while other pitched ideas for their next big art and technology installation.

Anna Volpicelli

"Nimbes" by Joanie Lemercier (Planetarium Dome, California Academy of Sciences)

California Academy of Sciences

This article was written in the context of the CalAcademy NightLlife curated by Mutek San Francisco and After Tomorrow.

In the context of the Nightlife, After Tomorrow organized 3 panel discussions with the first experimentation of 360° streaming! The panels were moderated by Patrick Dowd, Fellow, Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.

7pm: Enriching musical experiences through virtual reality? with Vincent Cavaroc, Artistic Director of Tropisme festival (Montpellier, France), Cyril Guiraud, co-founder of doubleOone and professional musician, and Han Jin, CEO of Lucid VR.

8pm: How do artificial intelligence and art intertwine? with Josette Melchor, Gray Area Founder (San Francisco), Alicia Sabuncuoglu, Strategic Partner Development Manager for Social Impact at Google, Dorothée Chabas, neurologist, painter and specialist of neuroesthetics, and Juliette Bibasse, digital art curator and producer.

9pm: Building the ultimate live performance: robot or augmented human? with Alain Mongeau, MUTEK. Montreal Director, Josiah Zayner, biohacker and scientist, ex-NASA researcher, and Jessica Riskin, Professor of History of Science at Stanford university

Along these panel discussions, Cal Academy NightLife curated by MUTEK San Francisco presented A/Visions 1, featuring a series of mind-bending audiovisual works, specially prepared for the Academy’s Planetarium dome, including “Nimbes,” by Joanie Lemercier with music by James Ginzburg (of Emptyset), exploring the ontology of observation and its relationship to cosmogony, and “Structure” by Jesse Woolston. San Francisco’s Topazu and Vague Terrain will soundtrack the museum, bookending a live performance by Night Sea.

This event was presented by:

MUTEK, renowned for its artistic and cultural projects, promoting innovation and digital cultures through live experiences.

AFTER TOMORROW, a season by the French Consulate in San Francisco, the Cultural and Scientific Services of the French Embassy in the United States, French Tech San Francisco, Institut Français and the French American Cultural Society.

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