Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa)
Realm Of Silk
Sougwen Chung
Victoria Theatre
Saturday (May 20)

With artificial intelligence (AI) sending waves of upheavals in the art world, it is apt that this year’s Sifa – positioning itself at the artistic vanguard – has commissioned a work that offers a mesmerising reply.

Realm Of Silk presents a perspective that defends the human artist without being defensive about human genius.

Four AI-powered robotic arms writhe and write on stage, but they are co-maestros with two other pairs of human hands belonging to Canadian artist Sougwen Chung and Singaporean cellist Leslie Tan.

In 45 engrossing minutes, the audience follows these eight hands as they compose a painting on a flat canvas that is often out of view, inviting one to engage instead with the performers’ bodily gestures.

Dressed in pristine white, Chung leaps elegantly across the circular canvas with a brush in hand while she feeds the robotic arms ink, the way an animal whisperer might extend a bowl of water to a bevy of baby deer.

Canadian artist Sougwen Chung paints with four AI-driven robotic arms in the festival commission, Realm Of Silk. PHOTO: MOONRISE STUDIO

Her tender gestures – such as cupping the “cheeks” of these robots – are visual tricks. They morph the mechanical arms into something animal-like until, at times, they arch uncannily like human wrists.

Canadian-born musician Aquarian’s score is an atmospheric wall of music that sustains itself like a long note through the show, aided by Tan’s flowing legatos.

Tan, with generous sweeps of his bow, goes beyond a musical duet with Chung. The spectacle crescendos into a symphonic movement of arms that fastens the eye.

When a large moon of a mirror descends, the audience gets a distorted glimpse of the canvas. But the abstract curves are not as interesting as the view one gets of the moving arms from an aerial perspective.

Chung, who has spent a decade working with technology as an art partner, is neither cynical nor naive about algorithms. Instead, she improvises an artistic language for talking to machines that audiences play witness to.

But there is more than meets the eye about this collaboration, as Chung reveals in a post-show talk that the headset she dons allows her brainwaves to influence the movement of the robots.

Chung dons a headset that allows her brainwaves to influence the movement of the robots on stage. PHOTO: MOONRISE STUDIO

Although not visible on stage, her work takes an ethical stance towards human-robot collaboration that is antithetical to trending AI software, which is trained on other artists’ content to create something iffily “new”.

Chung, instead, transforms her own neural waves and artworks into the dataset for robotic intervention.

Her emphasis on performing these collaborations in real-time, instead of doggedly pursuing output, slows down any quick judgments on AI art and turns one’s attention to art-making.

Realm Of Silk shows how something utterly beautiful can arise from being all hands on deck, robot or human, without assigning full control to either man or machine.