Halfway between the comical and the incongruous, the absurd and the disruptive, the work of Danish artists Stine Deja and Marie Munk raises essential questions relative to a future shaped by technology. Their show Synthetic Seduction, presently on view at SixtyEight Art Institute in Copenhagen and first exhibited at Annka Kultys Gallery in London, explores the question of love in a post-human world surrounded by artificial intelligence.
Could seduction or more broadly love be taught to machines? Could attraction be treated as a feeling foreign to the human body? What does it mean to be human?
The artists discuss these topics by heightening the dualist relationship between matter and mind. Taking physical and emotional interactions under the influence of hi-tech innovations as the main object of study, they create strange and intimate situations where the visitor is led to reconsider his physical self.
The powder-blue curtain covering the walls of the gallery suggests a medically sanitized atmosphere, suitable for biological experiments. In the center of the space, the artwork Skin-to-skin acts as an exquisite eye-catcher.
Umbilical cords, navels, chunks of human substance and organs, constitute a sofa on which the visitor can sit to watch The Intimacy Package, a film made by Stine Deja. If the half-furniture half-corporeal piece appears disturbing, even repulsive, we soon enough stretch out on it, feeling every vibration of this strange object. A small motor integrated inside the silicon sculpture produces pulsations, which make it animated, almost alive.
The work of Marie Munk undercuts reality, maintaining a tension between the natural and the artificial, that provokes a deep feeling of the uncanny.
Lying down on a body, experiencing it and being merged with another skin might be lived as a new encounter, a visceral one. But nevertheless anonymous. In fact, the subject’s identity completely disappears behind the physical aspect of the sculptural body. Those organic shapes lack sexual attributes and do not include either face or gaze. The physical overwhelms the being in its entirety.
In a world framed by the digital speaking exclusively to our minds, the body becomes a fleshy, heavy burden that we have to carry. Sitting there, all day long in the same position, as the brain operates swiftly while the anatomy is forgotten. In front of the screen, the distorted reality alters time and, more quickly than anticipated, the back hurts.
As a logical next step after the era of assembly lines, here we are, subtly constrained to remain in the exact same posture. Only the fingers wiggle frantically. Blurring boundaries between labor and private life, the computer might be the only tool that we use both to work and entertain ourselves. Marie Munk explains:
I want to explore the living body [...] as a thing on its own. We are going through an identity crisis related to having a physical body in a digital world.
To conceive this exhibition, the artists investigated the way technology shows up as an alternative to reality. More and more, we use surrogates to replace physical contact.
They studied various products, which haven’t been commercialized yet, but still act as eloquent clues to the symptoms of our time: “There is [...] this robot that would follow you around that can actually spark the same hormonal reactions as you would achieve when touching another person. Physically, our body needs contact with other people. Otherwise, we get depressed if we don’t get those oxytocin hormones. That means that it would even take away the physical need to be with other real humans.”
Adopting a similar approach, they created together Quality Control as a solution that could be brought to market. A transparent display case is filled with lumps of flesh on which stands a camera to monitor the quality of those skin pieces. Those portable bodies, probably very soon a best-seller, are being controlled before being sold.
Not so far from the reality, this process of recreating human anatomy actually echoes the last technical innovations from Silicon Valley. Erotic dolls, provided with a true-to-life artificially intelligent personality, are already being consumed as a substitute to human sexual relationships.
In contrast with the work of Marie Munk which mainly engages the sense of touch, Stine Deja produces videos which engage the sense of sight.
The Intimacy Package is the ultimate kit to buy in order to deal with human relationships. With an aesthetic both cold and kitsch, the tragicomic narrative is ingrained in the late capitalism, where social relations are apprehended as objects of consumption. This tutorial, addressed to artificial intelligence, teaches seduction in five steps: “ask questions”, “be present”, “share your feelings”, “show affection”, and “grab the moment”.
At each stage of the process, AI incarnates different forms, invoking the various kinds of robots that surround us. Not without a keen sense of irony, Stine Deja imagines a future in which machines would verbalize: “When I see happy couples during Christmas, I wish they would die.” Why do we create machines with human-like attitudes is another question raised in the show.
The second video, Foreigner, stages a humanoid robot in a clinical environment similar to the one set up in the gallery, blurring the boundaries between the landscape IRL (In Real Life) and online. The AI is looking at itself in the mirror, singing: “I want to know what love is. I want you to show me.”
The visitor finds themselves facing both the mirror and the screen, and more than ever, this anthropomorphic shape enacts as our fellow-men. The analogy made between the screen and the mirror sets the digital space as a parallel world in which the human would contemplate itself, playing the surgeon.
Narcisse, who fell in love with his own reflection, spent his life trying to reach his own image and died of despair. Careful not to get lost in this quest.
Synthetic Seduction is on view at SixtyEight Art Institute in Copenhagen until August 4th, 2018.
Written by Indira Béraud.
Featured images: Synthetic Seduction, Installation View, 2018 by Annka Kultys. All images courtesy the author.