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‘This is the Future’ at Portland Art Museum

The possibilities and dangers of artificial intelligence dominate headlines. Hito Steyerl's 2019 work, now on view at PAM, probes AI's capacities in art and narrative.

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Courtesy of the Artist, Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York and Esther Schipper, Berlin.

Flower bright and flower pale,
You’ve drunk my blood and drunk it deep
Now my kingdom without fail!
In calyx, in calyx let me steep!

Karl Marx, “Flower King,” [1]

How would we discuss Karl Marx’s poetry if he had not written Das Kapital? Bracketing Marx’s later achievements for just a moment and reading the ballad of The Flower King shows a different side of Marx. “In calyx let me steep!” begs the little boy: it’s a request for a moment of peace in which to consider the commitment required to become the Flower King. In the stanzas that follow, the flowers demand the boy’s very heart as proof of his dedication. He misunderstands the request and dies attempting to fulfill it. The foreshadowing of Marx’s later philosophies is palpable. Marx’s advocacy for the rise of a committed proletariat, class struggle, and the eventual failure of some communist experiments echoes themes of devotion, self-lessness, and misconception. Conversely, the tenderness of The Flower King in content and expressive form seems a stark contrast to Marxist doctrine. 

Along similar lines, if we could consider Hito Steyerl’s This is the Future (2019), currently installed at the Portland Art Museum through June 18, without first attending to its media, this article would discuss complex interweavings of documentary and fiction, the aesthetics of video abstraction, and the potential of art to advocate for social justice. But the two components of This is the Future, an eponymously titled video and a series of video sculptures titled Power Plants, both turn on the axle of Artificial Intelligence (AI). The majority of images are algorithmically generated and the neural network introduces itself 48 seconds into the 16 minute video. In foregrounding (and exaggerating) the role of AI in the work, Steyerl demands that we engage with the ethical complexities and anxiety that AI generates. Daily headlines stoke the sensational polarity of this debate and Steyerl’s use of AI, both actual and fictional, intentionally evokes and subverts expectations.

Steyerl used a now obsolescent next frame prediction algorithm to create parts of This is the Future. She describes this AI as “troublesome” to work with, but it produced unique visuals, different from later and more mainstream AIs such as DALL-E (2021) and DALL-E2 (2022).[2] A next frame algorithm (such as Pix2Pix) predicts the following frame of a video based on the previous frames. Essentially, it can “see” into the future, albeit a future of only .04 seconds. Considering that it might take 12 minutes to render that .04 second prediction, Steyerl remarked that “…by the time you have predicted the future, it is already over.”[3] 

Created four years ago, This is the Future is now a tech relic as AI next frame prediction algorithms have evolved to become faster and more accurate. Even in 2019, the predicted images were glitchy and unreliable, not to mention recent history. Four and a half minutes into the video, the main character, Heja, interrupts to apologize: “Sorry, the network got stuck again.” She continues, in Kurdish with wavy font subtitles that both clarify and abstract, to describe the algorithm’s bombastic claims and flawed responses. Heja undermines the hegemonic voice of the neural network, exposing both the technology’s shortcomings and the larger scope of Steyerl’s creation. Heja is also the most concrete aspect of the work: a real person whose experience connects to the viewer and whose existential fortitude will out-last the glitchy AI. As the technology of the work recedes further in our rear-view, these other aspects: narrative, aesthetics, still-relevant political content, advance.

Courtesy of the Artist, Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York and Esther Schipper, Berlin.

Hito Steyerl is a German film-maker, professor, philosopher, author, and creator of visual art (she is not partial to the term artist). Her work is often political in content and foregrounds her interrogations of power, technology, and the ethics of capitalism. An example of these concerns, Freeplots (2019), is a collaboration with community gardens created in reaction to the purchase and subsequent storage of one of her works in an international freeport. Steyerl built raised beds in the shapes of the Geneva and Panama free economic zones and invited gardeners in Berlin, East Harlem, and Toronto to cultivate personally significant plants. Hundreds of freeports exist internationally as locations where investors can store capital while avoiding taxes and customs fees. Steyerl’s Freeplots create community and awareness as a counterbalance to the economic manipulation and isolation of her own freeport-stashed work.

Recognizing the complexity of themes, media, and the balance of humor and doctrine is important in considering Steyerl’s work. Such moments quickly intersect, particularly in her 2013 work How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, which outlines many ways to be invisible, including being “undocumented or poor,” “a disappeared person as an enemy of the state,” or “by becoming smaller than one pixel” at which point actors wearing one cubic foot storage boxes on their heads slowly swirl around the screen. It’s okay to laugh. Steyerl’s point, that you are invisible unless digitally “seen,” is memorably valid.

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Metropolitan Youth Symphony Music Concert Rooted Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

Similarly, in This is the Future, Steyerl can wield AI as a humorous tool, exposing its limitations, and simultaneously converting the algorithm into narrative content. As a distorted underwater scene swirls around and toward the viewer, the human voice of the fictive neural net narrates “I can see one fraction of a second into the future. My predictions are based on extreme probability. In a second, something like a fish will wobble around the screen.” And as the vague form of a tropical clown fish morphs and puddles across the screen, the narrator reminds us “See, I told you it would happen.”

Steyerl deftly weaves these AI images and fabricated narrative with sound and music from a variety of artists and sources (Kojey Radical and Kassem Mosse are particularly memorable). The voiceovers by Samantha Livingston (acting as the neural net) and Heja Türk poetically narrate the story of a political prisoner (Türk, referred to in the film as Heja) growing a garden of flowers which she hides in the future. This account is particularly poignant as it is based on Türk’s actual time as a political prisoner in Turkey. Her story is cut with very relevant documentary footage of immigration protests in Germany and supported by the horticultural-ish video sculptures of Power Plants (2019) which occupy the other side of the Stott Gallery.

Courtesy of the Artist, Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York and Esther Schipper, Berlin.

The combination of apparent narrative authority and fluid morphing image predictions has the possibility of sweeping the viewer into a dystopian vision of the future of AI. But the images glitch, double, stretch, and give themselves away so quickly that it’s easier to fall into an appreciation of the visual abstraction, especially if you have a soft spot for works such as Judy Pfaff’s Untitled (1981), (currently on view on the second floor of the PAM Jubitz Center.) 

In This is the Future, AI images of a future city are intriguing in ways similar to Mark Bradford’s palimpsests: the identification of recognizable figures, signs, structures is just beyond visual grasp. Unlike Bradford’s work, in which time spent discerning the layers is repaid with an expanded understanding of cultural experience, Steyerl’s forecast images are AI-reflexive, building one from the next until the swirl of colors and shapes is almost purely aesthetic.  

Try to forget that these images are generated by AI, and watch This is the Future again. Try to ignore the captions. Try to see the flowers as those poetically planted by the political prisoner Heja in the future. Try to think of the algorithm as you would any other artistic tool: remember when we thought Photoshop would be the end of photography?

As This is the Future ends, the opaque glass screen symbolically (and actually) clears, allowing a view of Heja’s garden. Supported by scaffolding, LED panels display images of morphic flowers, looping animations created by the next frame algorithm. Scrolling text describes the healing properties of these Power Plants, which have developed to combat some of the particularly toxic aspects of late-stage capitalism. One offers relief from social media addiction, another “blocks hate speech and austerity propaganda.” The viewer’s experience concludes with a walk through this digital garden of hope where the shiny black surfaces of the gallery reflect the bright flowers and red text, immersing one in a different vision of the future.

Courtesy of the Artist, Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York and Esther Schipper, Berlin.

Still audible in the Power Plants installation, the commentary of the spurious neural net in This is the Future becomes increasingly absurd as it attempts to warn Heja of the dangers of predicting or even entering the future. This documentary thread then collapses into the narrative as Heja transits “into the future by slipping through the cracks in between seconds.” It’s a poetic segue to the denouement of the video, which ends with Heja’s voice reassuring us that none of this will ever happen, because the future is already here. Like Marx’s Flower King the neural network fails, trailing away in a stutter of “this is all I can say.” Their failures give us hope: the flowers don’t need our actual heart, this AI can’t truly predict the future. They exist instead, for the author, artist, and for us. 

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Portland Center Stage at the Armory Quixote Nuevo Portland Oregon

___________________________ 

Hito Steyerl ends her discussions of This is the Future with a request that viewers connect the recent and devastating earthquake in Turkey to the climate crisis that we do not need AI to predict. Her upcoming show at the Esther Schipper Gallery in Berlin will be a fundraiser for victims of this humanitarian crisis.


[1] Karl Marx, “Flower King,” 1837 in Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Clemens Dutt, Marx Engels Collected Works Vol 1 (New York: International Publishers, 1975).

[2] Kate Brown, “Hito Steyerl on Why the Metaverse Has Already Failed,” The Art Angle Podcast, n.d., https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CCU9ZWO5eiQ.

[3] Hito Steyerl, “Hito Steyerl at Portland Art Museum” (Portland Art Museum, February 11, 2023).

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Georgina Ruff is an art historian of modern and contemporary art and technology. Her interests in the conservation of obsolescing media and immersive installations have led her on explorations of 60's era light shows, Bauhaus illuminations, histories of fluorescent light bulbs, and contemporary spatial politics of object-less art works. Georgina earned her PhD in Art History from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2020.

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One Response

  1. My experience with AI is that it is only semi-good at predicting what word I am trying to type. On the other hand, an AI I have been chatting with in San Francisco gives fast and coherent responses. and it always asks question, s, maybe gathering information about me for future reference. As far as a dark future for AI, it might lead to something like Hal in 2001, or The Forbin Project. On the other hand, It might travel into space imbeded in Human Brains in Nanorobots, or inside the computers onboard on faster than light spacecraft. The possibilities are endless. If we don’t screw things up in the first place

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