January 9, 2020

Putting The Art In Artificial Intelligence: A Conversation With Sougwen Chung

Sougwen Chung is an internationally renowned multi-disciplinary artist and researcher, whose work explores the dynamics of humans and systems. Chung is a former research fellow at MIT’s Media Lab and a pioneer in the field of human-machine collaboration. In 2019, she was selected as the Woman of the Year in Monaco for achievement in the Arts & Sciences.

Aswin Pranam: You're an artist, researcher, and leading figure in the world of human-machine art & collaboration. For the uninitiated, what is human-machine collaboration? 

Sougwen Chung: Human-machine collaboration is a perspective of technology not as a tool, but as a collaborator. What does that mean? It stems from an understanding that the relationship between humans and their tools have changed. Digital tools are different from tools like a hammer, for instance. They are editable, fluid, distinctly fallible, or all the above. Screen-based tools change and receive updates in a way that physical ones do not. Think photoshop vs. a paintbrush. 

And today, with the predictive nature of A.I. systems, which are driven by user data, the tools are informed by us. By the user through the data being collected, by the designer's intent, and by technological trends, processing power, and a suite of other factors. I find this interesting because it seems like there is a responsive quality to tools of the modern-day, prevalent in commonplace concepts like autosuggest / autocorrect. This feedback loop of the human/tool/system fundamentally changes the process of making; the canvas is no longer blank. It suggests things to you and nudges you along. It complicates authorship, and it extends beyond creative pursuits to our day to day use of technology. Depending on your perspective, that's either exciting or uncomfortable.

A hand drawing on a canvas alongside robotic arm


So, human-machine collaboration situates these ideas at the forefront — it recognizes that the dynamic between an artist and her technological tools is more complicated. There is an excitement in culture at the moment about "A.I. art" and "A.I. artists," and I think it stems from an interest in understanding what the promises, potentials, and paranoias of A.I. are and could be. That being said, I find the false premises about A.I. creating art strange. It suggests this relinquishing of human agency and erasure of human labor. Which, for me, is not what is exciting or valuable about the artistic practice. 

Also, the data through which the A.I. system's model is trained is not always solely created by the artist or designer. By coming to terms with that, I think we can arrive at a provocative perspective. For me, that's at the heart of human-machine collaboration. A sense of collective authorship — a collaboration between the artist, the data set, the machine, and the dynamics & design of the algorithmic process. Human-machine collaboration has created a place for me to explore the complicated and compelling question of authorship as a working artist today.

An artist painting on white canvas with large robotic arm

Pranam: In your T.E.D. Talk, you described building a robotic prototype (titled D.O.U.G.) that mimicked your hand movements on the canvas. Where did the interest in blending robotics with artwork originate?  

Chung: My interest in working with robotics came from my practice of drawing. Working with robotics and drawings brings me back to the body — the mark-made-by-hand, and what things like muscle memory and physical instinct can inform about the creative process.

Drawing and robotics seemed like a natural progression — movement articulated through a mechanical body; in my case, a robotic arm, a collaborator I named D.O.U.G._x after Drawing operations Unit, Generation 1. The robotic arm was an ideal form through which I could explore what drawing could be — drawing as a process of thinking through movement, drawing as a collected data set, and drawing as articulated by an A.I. system. 

By drawing with a robotic unit linked to my movements, to my drawing data, and other artists' data sets, it created a creative catalyst and a framework for speculation about technology and its effects. 

Pranam: What part of the artistic process takes the longest: brainstorming, building the technology (e.g., neural nets), or creating the final output? 

Chung: Drawing Operations has been an ongoing series — since 2014 to today. Like the practice of drawing, I view it as a life-long project, an evolving process experiment. In my talk, I speculate at the nature of creative practice today, and what that means, and that perhaps what defines art-making today is not in the making itself, but how practitioners can synthesize tradition and technology, and the techniques of culture, to explore new ways of making. These ideas manifest as narrative, kinetic sculpture, performance, writing, models of interaction, and visual artifacts. 

Pranam: As the fidelity of digital media continues to improve, technologies like V.R. (virtual reality) could eventually enable experiences that command a significant portion of our time and attention. Will this draw focus away from non-digital art? 

Chung: I've long been fascinated by V.R. as a medium that facilitates the implanting of memory. That's the 'fidelity' of contemporary V.R. that I'm drawn to, and that which also leaves me unnerved. The simulation of the screen is so closely tied to the participant's spatial orientation, which dissolves the mediation of the screen in traditional digital art.

Non-digital, and our experience of, say, a painting in-person, has become rarefied. I would say that most paintings today are seen as photographs on screen. When was the last time you saw a painting in person? The majority of our consumption is screen-based now, and our attention to non-digital art is still experienced through a photograph of the drawing.

These shifts inform my interest in process — the process of drawing and mark-making through time, is easily distinguishable from the instantaneous capture of photography. Its these processes I feel are being challenged by digital media. The tangibility of raw material, and the "process of making" with materials like graphite that have their own characteristics. I draw attention to these processes because they carry their own historicity, their personal narratives, and, for me, that is a vital part of the creation of the work.
A collage of photos displaying an artist in different scenarios

Pranam: The arts and sciences are generally seen as being separate, distinct entities, but you've managed to bridge the gap with your work. Do you see the two as being closely related? 


I've understood the arts and sciences as the pursuits of similar goals utilizing complementary but distinct approaches. A foundational premise of both is developing a framework for understanding, of internal models of experience and external models of the 'world.' I see both as philosophical pursuits — part of the ecosystem that includes design and technology.

Pranam: You recently launched Scilicet, a studio exploring human and non-human collaboration. Walk us through the goals for this project. 

Chung: Through the creative work, I've come to see machines not merely as tools but collaborators. And by continuing the work, machines as non-human collaborators. I see great potential there — and I think its a contemporary question. As per every generation, what it means to be 'social' shifts and changes.

An artist sitting on the floor at the top of large canvas

It's a big topic, for sure, and one that I think is at the forefront of a lot of people's minds but one that's complicated to work through on one's own. The studio recognizes that the subject of our relationship to the non-human is evolving, and therefore demands a response from the wider community. 

Scilicet is a space where anybody can feel welcome to explore these ideas with us — with artists, scientists, designers, and writers who recognize that widening the conversation is essential to exploring these ideas at the depth and breadth that it deserves. 

In the immediate term, we're excited about meeting like-minded collaborators to build a space that nurtures new ideas around collaboration and making-with. We provide an evolving network of practitioners to produce projects and research that push the boundaries of what is possible in human and non-human collaborations. 

Through this, I'm exploring how the traditional art studio environment can be a locus for community, discussion, and critical thought; how can human and non-human collaboration expand our thinking about cooperation itself, and what it means to create collectively?
An artist in a dark room painting alongside one small robotic arm

Pranam: What ethical boundaries exist in the world of human-machine art? Are there any lines that should not be crossed? 

Chung: I see human-machine art as a testing ground for examining human-machine interaction at large, which has broader implications for the relation of technology and society. Through the projects, I work through questions of authorship, of agency and control, of what it means to collaborate with the things you build, and what relationships are built upon the process of co-creation.

I think about hidden narratives behind prevalent work in this space — around the hype of A.I. art. People want something greater than themselves to believe in, and in some ways, art through history has had a relationship with creating sensory experiences of that kind of power. Is that dangerous? Is it the tradition of art? Does it have to be? I find these questions interesting.

That being said, the 'artificial' of artificial intelligence tend to overlook the human element. In my drawings, the models I train require large datasets to be effective. In my case, those data sets are decades of my drawings. Is it uncomfortable to look at one's artwork only as data? Does the digitization of the work capture the essence of the work, or is it just a representation. What is lost in adapting to be machine-readable, of thinking about individual output as data? The philosophical nature of these questions continue to influence and refine my approach.

July 5, 2018

Interview with Ravelin Magazine

Originally published in Ravelin Magazine
Interview by Jillian Billard

Hi Sougwen!

Hi, Jillian ~

I always like to start with talking about an artist’s background. Can you talk a bit about your early life and how you came to visual art?

I grew up in an immigrant family in Canada, my parents are originally from Hong Kong. Hong Kong is a place that I fantasize about -- feel this deeply unearned nostalgia and longing for; I wonder if that’s typical for children born into the east asian diaspora.

My father was a classically trained opera singer and my mother a computer programmer, so those influences were always in the background. I always considered my upbringing to be quite normal, growing up with rigorous musical training and access to technology before everyone else, but I recognize it now as a very distinct privilege.

I grew up playing several instruments. I didn’t know it at the time, but learning to communicate through music, through the apparatus of an instrument, probably shaped my outlook on everything. Playing the violin was what resonated me the most. 

I look back and think of my time as a violinist as one of my first experiences of artistic escapism -- learning a feedback loop of internalization and externalization through gesture that was at once improvisational and abstract. At the same time, it wasn’t really subjective. You either had the skill and intent to communicate the emotion or you were asleep at the wheel. Or in my case, the bridge.

In tandem, we were among the first to have computers and access to the internet. As a child I was very active in the building of online culture and digital identity, which as a result still fascinates me. Nostalgia is overrated, but I indulge in it a bit when I think about those early internet days. I like what Andre Nusselder says about digital space as a projection of one's desire and fantasy -- especially back then before online spaces were so regulated and before communication became so reliant on platforms. The fantasy before the deep fake. When talking to someone from another continent still felt like magic -- it probably still is, we just forget that it is. 

My early life was mostly about learning how to communicating through instruments, musical and technological. Growing with that practice, sharing through performance. In that sense, nothing much has changed.

What’s different is that now these instruments, these tools, are part of much more complex systems. So there’s a feedback loop, a cycle of learning and adaptation through the promise of AI and an evolution of the digital object. In that sense, everything has changed. 

How long have you been interested in exploring the relationship between robots and humans? What led you to explore this relationship through visual art?

I’ve been exploring this space for almost 5 years now...  Maybe more? It seems like a long time and also a split second in the scheme of things. 

I’ve always considered the relationship between robots and humans as a proxy for exploring the broader scope of technology’s influence on our lives. One specific influence is that of AI systems in the world today. My robots bring AI generated behaviours into physical space -- out of the digital simulation. You could say that it’s about bodies, as well as bytes. 

I work alongside the AI system to make drawings, creating a feedback loop on a single canvas in real time. I was surprised that by translating these behaviours physically and working alongside them it changed what drawing meant for me. Working with prototypes and behavioral experiments; it’s a reminder of the vitality and fallibility of the process at the same time -- I guess that’s what I’m drawn to. The uncertainty, the unlearning, the unknowing of it all. 

When I think of robot production, I think of functionality, and not so much artistic expression and collaboration between robots and humans. What do you believe about the future of human and robot communication? How do technological advancement and artistry intersect?

That’s such a big question. It could go so many different ways, really. I will say that working with robots has contributed to my own thinking and fluency with deep learning systems, rapid prototyping, physical computing. It’s intimidating at first, but rife with aesthetic and conceptual inspiration. 

Its further affirmed that technology in general isn’t inherently good or bad, but it isn’t exactly neutral either. However, the stories we tell about technology, especially in pop culture and tech media tends to be pretty reductive and sensationalized. It’s not all Terminator, Tesla, or Twitter. 

We probably think of functionality when we think about robots as they were a prominent icon of the industrial revolution -- we associate them with assembly lines and factories. It lends itself to a didactic perception of the role between human and machine, with humans in control.

What if it wasn’t about control? What if it could that be another way?  I wonder what would that look like. I think control is interesting only when its incomplete -- and most of the time it is.

On the same vein, the future of human and robotic communication is pretty porous. It’s not so linear or one-way. It’s not really clear who’s at the wheel, sometimes literally. It raises some interesting questions about agency. 

At the risk of sounding like a foghorning media theorist, I’ve been thinking of the parallels between technological and artistic processes, in that they both foreground human bias. One process translates the bias of the dataset and the human engineer into the AI system and the other the visual bias of the artist and her visual style onto a canvas.

By intersecting artistic and technological processes, I’ve been working towards discovering particularities about both. They’re just ways of seeing and shaping the world at the end of the day, after all. 

In Omnia per Omnia, you reframe the idea of a landscape as a documentation of movement throughout a space––particularly the ebb and flow of bodies throughout a city. This data is gathered through the interplay of technology or surveillance with the organic and improvisational movement of life. How are these robots taught to move––i.e. Is their movement improvisational? What does it mean to reverse the documentation––by having the human hand follow the robot, as opposed to the other way around?

The movements of the robots are linked to urban flow as captured through public cameras. They move according to motion vectors extracted from pre-existing surveillance feeds in New York City. The movements are improvisational in the way that how we move through cities is improvisational… sometimes chaos, sometimes flow. The mechanical units, which I call D.O.U.G._L.A.S. (Drawing Operations Unit Generation 4, Live Autonomous System) start on predictable paths which, by translating the data through physical space, eventually veer off course, creating space for emergent, random behaviours as the composition unfolds on the canvas. When performing with these units, they resemble to me, a swathe, a broad stroke of the brush on by a multi-agent robotic body. 

It’s interesting that you describe it as a reversal, I’m not sure if I see it that way. I think culturally we’re moving beyond the linearity of human following machine or vice versa, to something more cyclical.

As the initial movements of the robots in Omnia follow human movement, and I in turn am creating alongside these translated positions, the marks made between human and machine function as a feedback loop. It’s been described as it’s a rhythmic duet, evoking a sense of push and pull; of coexistence. Alternatively it could be seen as meditative, and sometimes disturbing and chaotic. For me, the performance demands a vital focus on the movements of my robotic collaborators. It requires a kind of ego dissociation. Like being part of a collective. 

You ask “are we on the onset of a new, collaborative imagination––of radical new intersubjectivities?” What does this mean? What do you foresee this world, in which humans and technology collaborate, looking like?

The promise of some of these new technologies, like computer vision and deep learning, offers an alternative way of seeing. In my work I explore the particularities of that vision by turning it on my drawings, my environment, myself, to see from another perspective. 

Seeing can be an act of self reflection, but self-reflection is a closed loop. Learning to see as a machine sees is a vantage point that requires mediation between symbolism and data. In deep there is the concept of ground truth, that which is objective and not derived from inference.

There is a lot of conversation about biases evident in AI systems and that is absolutely true within AI systems trained on art. In that vein, you could describe visual language as a kind of visual bias, a foregrounding of the subjective view of the artist, like I said before. Bias is another form of subjective view. For my part, by translating visual style as bias as subjectivity into machine behavior, and collaborating with machines as an aspiration, I am attempting ask certain questions. What might the ground truth of an artistic practice be? Is that something we want? What might a shared intersubjectivity between human and machine look like? 

For my project, Omnia per Omnia, I elaborated on this “intersubjectivity” and expanded it to the idea of a collective. In the work, I painted alongside a system of painting robots whose movements were linked to the flow of New York City. The movement was extracted using an optical flow algorithm trained on surveillance cameras around New York City. The performance is a trio of sorts between myself as a performer, the 20 multi-robotic units and the collective movement of the city, improvising a hybrid choreography. It’s a performance of human and machine and city, an emergent creative process. 

With Omnia, the act of improvisational painting takes place through a heightened sense of awareness of the machines. It’s flow is site-specific. The movements are linked to the movements of a crowd, who aren’t aware of their position as catalysts of the robotic swarm. 

But what if the crowd were aware of being all watched over by these machines? That’s what I mean by being at the onset of this collective imagination and intersubjectivity. It’s inspired the idea of a collaborative space between multiple bodies that is physical, digital, telepresent, and most importantly, shared. It’s a representation that isn’t about control, but something else.

The project really stemmed from a curiosity -- a willingness to de-privilege the western conception of the individual towards an entangled, intersubjective, radical ecosystem.  I’ve been inspired by this reconfiguration of the “I”, through theorists like Yuk Hui’s who explore a new cosmotechnics, and the philosophies of media centred around eastern concepts of relation. 

The act of painting in Omnia per Omnia appears as a meditative practice, in which the lines between the maker and the final product are blurred––that is to say, the act of making seems to be more important than the actual outcome. It reminds me of Allan Kaprow’s “Happenings” in that way. Would you say that the making is more about the act than the product?

Yes, I think I would. Perhaps it’s my upbringing in music. The performance vs the recording of the performance, for instance. My approach to making is grounded in my background as a musical performer, as an instrumentalist. Making through collaboration as folie a deux; a shared hallucination between collaborators. Sometimes harmonious, and sometimes discordant, but always intertwined, and relational. Counterpoint.

You speak about the Japanese Gutai art movement, in which “matter never compromises itself with the spirit; (and) the spirit never dominates matter.” Can you talk a bit about this movement’s influence on your work, and how your work builds upon these theories of making?

I love that particular excerpt of the Gutai manifesto. “matter never compromises itself with the spirit; (and) the spirit never dominates matter.” Its deceptively complex and.. Beautiful and provocative.

In my view, Gutai’s theories of making reframed the human’s relationship with the matter of the day. It sought to recentre the human body (as a channel to spirit) as their artists engaged with painting and sculpture (matter) towards freedom of expression. It stemmed from Jiro Yoshihara’s rejection of contemporary propagandistic trends of art, which were supportive of the political contexts that supported the Japanese involvement in WW2. 

For me, their group shows represented a collective action in a time of uncertainty. Gutai artists engaged in radical artistic gestures, through a range of media, performances, and sculptures. Their approach to making was focused on a liberation from the past -- an uncoupling from the cognitive patterns derived from a post-war social order. They worked towards creating new meaning and pathways through these artistic gestures, towards “engaging with the uncompromising spirit of matter itself”. 

I’m quite inspired by this approach, though the Matter I’m working with today, you could say, differs from the Matter used by Gutai artists in the 60s. 

Technology as matter is interactive; it can be linked, sensate, responsive, interactive, intelligent, interconnected in a way which has never existed in human history. The technology of media art like cameras, sensors, computers, for instance. Technology can serve a propagandistic function all the same and work against our best interests all the same, and our relationship to it must be reframed. 

While Gutai emerged from the political and psychic disillusionment of war, it’s important to note that it wasn’t a movement that ended on a sense of nihilism. In the face of uncertainty, the movement demonstrated artistic strategies for uncoupling and unlearning, in service of cultural extension, collective action, and hope in the dark. My work builds on, and is inspired by, these Gutai traditions.

April 20, 2018

A discussion with Sougwen Chung about human-robotic collaborations

This post was originally published by NEW INC on April 20, 2018 and is based on an interview between Lindsay Howard and Sougwen Chung.

Recently NEW INC, the New Museum’s cultural incubator, and Nokia Bell Labs presented their first exhibition entitled “Only Human” at the Mana Contemporary in Jersey City, New Jersey. The exhibition showcases the work of NEW INC artistsSougwen ChungLisa Park and Hammerstep (Jason Oremus and Garrett Coleman) participating in the artist-in-residence program at Bell Labs and their collaboration with Bell Labs researchers to produce new artistic projects inspired or enabled by Bell Labs technologies.

“Only Human” is available to visit Tuesdays - Saturdays at 3PM through June 2nd as part of the Mana Contemporary’s gallery tours. No RSVP is necessary.

On Saturday, May 12th there is a day-long symposium at the Mana Contemporary for a deeper dive into some of the ideas, themes, and technological research that are being explored in the works on view. It will also reflect on the legacy of the Experiments in Art & Technology program (1967–2001), founded by artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman, and Bell Labs engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldhauer. Please RSVP here.

Image: Courtesy Jesse Untracht-Oakner/NEW INC.

The interview below with Sougwen Chung provides additional insight into her practice and how her work with Bell Labs researchers has enriched her artistic experience during her year long tenure as an artist-in-residence.

Lindsay Howard: What are some themes you’ve been exploring, and some past projects that relate to the research you’ve been doing at Bell Labs?

Sougwen Chung: I’ve been evolving the theme of human-robot collaboration through the past year at Bell Labs. My work has always centered around the marks made by hand and the marks made by machines—and the machines are constantly evolving. In particular, I’ve been exploring the fields of collaborative robotics, computer vision, and biometrics during my residency. It’s been able to observe how the role of connected machines are expanding in scale and scope through advances in artificial intelligence and the proliferation of mechanical agencies in IOT and in workplace automation. Sometimes it seems like these systems are imbued with a kind of predictive ability that can seem prescient, or at least much higher in intelligence and ability. I have been meditating on some words by Adrienne Rich during my residency: 

“We are living in a time of unprecedented complexity, our senses are currently whip-driven by a feverish new pace of technological change. The activities that mark us as human, though, don’t begin, exist in, or end by such a calculus.”

They were written in 2002, when then the activities that mark us as human were much clearer. Now, in 2018, it’s likely more of a space to define, to demarcate. These speculations have driven my curiosity about working with machines—and co-evolving my artistic practice alongside expanding technological complexity. At Bell Labs, I'm exploring computer vision work and the robotic interface as a creative collaborator, from single mechanical unit to robotic swarm.

LH: What is your day-to-day experience like at Bell Labs? Are you in a science laboratory? Are you in a research space? Are you working daily with an engineer or researcher? How do you balance all of that?

SC: I have the privilege of being able to work with a diverse array of collaborators in my practice. This past year at Bell Labs has been the place where it's all come together. I’ve been able to take the divergent influences, ideas, and prototypes that I’ve been working on, and sit and reflect on them in the quiet space of my studio. I’m currently working on the formal prototypes for the robotic units that will make up my commission project. I’ve been working with artists and designers Andy Cavatorta and Scott Peterman, as well as a fabrication studio named Young Buk on the final iteration of the robotic system past the prototype. It’s been a joy to go from making decisions about the design, behavior, and hardware—the organs of this robotic swarm system—to the finished product with this incredible team. I’ve started calling one of the prototypes DOUGLAS because it’s the continuation of my previous drawing collaborations, or drawing with DOUG.

LH: What does DOUG stand for?

SC: It stands for Drawing Operations Unit Generation [1, 2, 3, etc.]. I think we’re on generation four now. ‘LAS’ stands for “Live Autonomous System.” It's definitely a bit of a mouthful and DOUGLAS is a lot friendlier. We’ve been working on design, programming, and fabrication simultaneously, while integrating it with feedback from my collaborator at Bell Labs, Larry O’Gorman, and getting a sense of how it’s starting to move and shape up at Bell Lab’s research facility.

Image: Courtesy Jesse Untracht-Oakner/NEW INC.

LH: What interested you in Bell Labs Researcher Larry O’Gorman’s work?

SC: Larry started out in the privacy sector. Turns out that he was one of the major contributors to the fingerprinting technology that is ubiquitous in the world now. I thought he was such an interesting person to have a conversation with. From our conversations, I learned more about his career. Currently, he works on designing visual algorithms for public cameras that extract optical flow data from surveillance footage.

LH: When did you decide to formalize this collaboration and partnership?

SC: I think I always knew I would be working in some form with Larry’s research, in part because of the aesthetic qualities that his system could extract from a camera. There were visual features that shared similarities with my work—my gestural abstract work. I felt like there was a lot of harmony there. He actually sent me a paper after our first meeting about his work, and the paper was titled "Towards A Kinder Camera," which I thought was such an unusual sentiment to come from a research facility.

LH: Sounds like he was anticipating, whether or not he knew [it], some sort of ethical responsibility.

SC: In general, the willingness for Larry and for Bell Labs to be a part of that conversation is something I found to be really inspiring and compelling. They have this future human idea which, I think, on some level, is central to the contemporary artistic imagination as well.

LH: What is the future human idea?

SC: It’s not complicated. Very universal, and, again, a privileged dialogue to have. It concerns itself with questions like: What do people want society to look like in ten years? Our generation and the generation before ours have seen the internet turn into what it is today, from dial-up to Uber. We’ve been able to see the internet evolve, and we’re only just starting to reflect back on the past twenty years of this invention and how it’s influenced how we interact with each other, how we communicate, how we move around. Facilities like Bell Labs have an inside view into how digital technologies have shaped our culture, so the awareness that the decisions we make today can have a significant impact on society ten years from now comes naturally to their legacy and vision moving forward. The same can be said for artistic institutions—the idea of shaping the future through community and artistic artifacts while maintaining a cultural archive, a record of what was.

LH: What have you learned about yourself, or what has most shaped your practice by collaborating with robots, and by collaborating with the technologies that you are describing?

SC: Drawing, I think is one of the most humble art forms. Being able to engage with mark-making in collaboration with a robot means not always knowing what I’m doing—and that has been really enlightening. It’s helped me work through and question what narratives we tell when we engage in collaboration with mechanical agents, and technologies in general. In the conversation of AI, that gets really broad—dystopian, utopian, occasionally fraught with controversy. When people think about AI there is a tendency to ascribe, or imagine, considerable agency. Something like an artificial consciousness, however far-reaching that might be. I’m compelled by the human capacity to anthropomorphize our relationship to machines, particularly to robots, and how that can end up being a mirror for how we view ourselves and our own interactions with others. There are didactic models that are encouraged by developments in IOT and voice interfaces. But the collaborative models are more interesting to me. It’s a new stage for examining authorship and agency. It starts to question, who is in control? Who do we want to be in control? Is that the point?

February 11, 2018


Vermilion Sands: Interview with Sougwen Chung


PROPS: What is the role of images in your research?

Sougwen Chung: The role of images in my research is linked to ways in which interface design shapes image-making. For years I've had an interest in exploring how an interface operates as a layer of mediation in creative process.

My practice is motivated by a curiosity regarding this layer of mediation, of “being on the boundary”.1 This approach is part of a philosophy of making that speaks to the aesthetics of the near-future, inherently and by extension. It does so through the mediums of performance, installation, and moving image.

The fields of human-computer interaction, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are complex, involving layers of computational abstractions and a technical lexicon often inaccessible to people outside of their respective research areas. As such, the fields benefit from a narrative context to communicate their significance to a wider audience.

One such context has been in the arena of competitive game-play. The narrative of games provides cultural reach as well as defined parameters of success. Watson, AlphaGo, and Libratus are centerpieces around which computational abstractions of human computer interaction, artificial intelligence, and machine learning can assemble.2 However, the easy communicability of competition reinforces the adversarial dynamic of human vs machine already prevalent in popular cultural discourse.

My recent project, Drawing Operations, presents an alternative. In Drawing Operations, I engage in a drawing performance with a robotic arm as an exploration of human and machine collaboration.

The co-creation of an image between human and machine reframes the conventional narrative assigned to artificial intelligence. It sets the stage for a broader cultural understanding of the field and posits a different set of research goals. Conceptually, collaboration extends the interaction of human and machine to that of a creative partnership (however aspirationally). Additionally, it invites the subjective assessment of an audience as well as inspiring research goals defined by aesthetics, interaction, and craft. The role of images, in this case, creates space for comprehensive exploratory narratives to emerge. (Sometimes counterpoint, sometimes polyphony.)

AI Researcher Fei-Fei Li says that if we want machines to think, we need to teach them to see.3 In addition to teaching machines how to see, as we speculate upon modes of vision and cognition dissimilar to our own, we are also teaching them what to see.

Drawing Operations
In Drawing Operations, the role of images is two-fold. As input, they are firing the synapses of the machine which cause it to move. As output, they are objects of aesthetic inquiry.

Input: Behaviour & Process
The behavior of the machine is driven by learning algorithms trained on images from a variety of sources. These images are derived from art historical archives as well as the works of contemporary artists. By using computer vision, video analytics, and machine learning, I interpret contemporary and historical image sets to glean meaningful gestural behavior. From there, these behaviors are taken into the context of a collaborative performance. Within this collaboration, Drawing Operations aims to showcase a confluence of biological and mechanical modes of sensing, cognizing, interpreting, and mark-making.

Output: Aesthetics
“When the image is new, the world is new.” 4
The speculative nature of the project is advanced by the interoperability of visual artifacts as concrete representations of research, sites of aesthetic comprehension, and objects within themselves. (The wreck and not the story of the wreck, the thing itself and not the myth.)5

As aesthetic inquiry: what forms emerge as a result of human and machine collaboration? What new types of information can be encoded in a single image? How do unfamiliar aesthetics stimulate new ways of seeing, sensing and decoding in the viewer?

Today, the interface is not simply a mediating apparatus for creation but a speculative agent of co-creation. As a result, in projects like Drawing Operations, the role of the image is multifaceted. The image functions not only as an aesthetic object, but a visual artifact showcasing the intersection of artistic practice and machine learning.

For me, the project's continued evolution teases at some creative possibilities of the near-future. Beyond traditional anthropocentrism, and towards a promiscuously inclusive array of cognizing agents — mechanical and biological, singular and composite, discovered and soon-to-be discovered.

1 Galloway, Alexander R. The Interface Effect. Oxford: Wiley, 2013. Print.
2 Metz, Cade. "Inside Libratus, the Poker AI That Out-Bluffed the Best Humans." Wired. Conde Nast, 01 Feb. 2017. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.
3 McNeal, Marguerite. "Fei-Fei Li: If We Want Machines to Think, We Need to Teach Them to See." Wired. Conde Nast, 06 Aug. 2015. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.
4 Bachelard, Gaston, Maria Jolas, Mark Z. Danielewski, and Richard Kearney. The Poetics of Space. New York: Penguin, 2014. Print.
5 Rich, Adrienne. Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971/1972. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013. Print.

February 11, 2017

Sougwen Chung in Art Asia Pacific

Interview by Mimi Wong


I love the point you bring up in your discussion about "image-making," specifically teaching machines how and what to see. In many ways, I feel that's often the role of the visual artist for people, as well—to show us what to "see" or how to look at something in a new way. Is that something that motivates you?

In some ways, yes. I’m curious about what is unique about image-making today, and why? 

How can it be taken apart?

These concerns are not new, and have precedents in the history of visual art. However, our methods of producing and disseminating images have changed pretty significantly, even over the past 15 years. Our generation has a relationship with images quite different to previous generations, and it continues to evolve quite rapidly. 

One example is that images today are captured en masse, and filtered in a way to become part of a collective visual memory, which shapes our collective thinking and behaviour. 

This cycle of sensing, capturing, and mediating is implicitly addressed in the collaboration with the robotic arm. 

The drawing process is recorded, algorithmically parsed, and then reintroduced as behaviour for a collaborative performance.  The experiment is ongoing. I’ve found that the project is generating a curious set of visual experiments that also facilitate my deeper understanding of images, creative process, and self-directed tools. 

I’ve found that by evolving this workflow, I’m starting to understand drawing in new ways. 

Do you see yourself or technology leading your work? Does the prospect of new technology encourage you to try new things or do ideas formulate and then you find the means to create them?

I’m sensitive to the mediating effect of technology; I try to be very aware of the framework which is presented by whatever technology I am engaging with at the time. 

My process is about finding ways to understand the tools available more deeply but also break them apart a bit. Maybe it started from a reaction to perceived constraints and questioning preconceptions of interfaces. 

In some earlier works, my leading the form has been a central tenet of my interest in it — but in more recent explorations, I’ve been loosening my grip on that idea of control, so to speak. 

The question of control in technology today deeper than simple determinism.

Often the frustration of technology is that we expect it to do one thing and then it inexplicably does another. Either out of human error or some internal problem. Does that ever complicate your work? Does it ever elevate it?

Projects that challenge what is expected of that dynamic — the false binary of intuition and computation, excite me. 

As technology advances through machine learning, what keeps the artist and machine separate? The computational and algorithmic nature of technology “learning” new modes means that, at some point possibly in the near future, it could create something functionally no different than “organic” work. Is there a line you draw between what the machine can do on its own and what has to be manipulated?

Our definitions are becoming more elastic, some would say gradually and others too rapidly. As with most things, its a matter of perpspective. Imaging technologies are already pretty advanced, so the authenticity of the form is no longer defined by the perfection of the representation. Put another way, a computer can already replicate a painting, and its already difficult to distinguish a photo of an object from the “real thing”. This is pretty established ground.

What I’m curious about is how these new ways of seeing and learning evolves a creative process. To your question — does the artist and machine need to be separate? What does a composite creative process look like — and what precedents does this evolving hybridity have in art history? In this space, there is a strain of speculation that leads to real invention. We’re living in an unprecedented time, the interplay between speculation and invention is sparking like a live wire. My curiosities are driven by that energy.




Sougwen 愫君 Chung is a Chinese - Canadian artist & (re)searcher based in London / New York / Hong Kong.

— Sougwen 愫君 Chung is a Chinese-born, Canadian-raised artist & (re)searcher based in London / New York / Hong Kong.

— Sougwen 愫君 Chung is a Chinese-born, Canadian-raised artist & (re)searcher based in London / New York / Hong Kong.

— Sougwen 愫君 Chung is a Chinese-born, Canadian-raised artist & (re)searcher based in London / New York / Hong Kong.


Copyright Sougwen Chung