Look in the mirror. What do you see? A puff-eyed night owl struggling to deal with 6am. A successful creative getting ready to take on the world. The scars of an overambitious tree-climber who never quite grew up? An overstretched mum? Walt Whitman wrote, ‘I contain multitudes’, and it’s true – we each know ourselves to be complicated, contradictory, constantly shifting entities. Too interesting to be easily and pithily described. We fascinate ourselves.
That self-fascination is a warped by-product of self-awareness and is a unique facet of the human condition, so enduring that the ancients told myths about it. Or, at least it was a unique facet of the human condition – until a group of German creative technologists, designers and artists asked what might happen were a machine to be as narcissistic as a person.
Narciss is a haunting art installation, dreamt up by Berlin-based studio Waltz Binaire. Its premise is simple, and yet the effect is profoundly disturbing. A motherboard containing an AI trained on a generic database of street scenes is mounted upright, opposite a mirror. It’s hooked up to a webcam that’s pointed at the mirror, locking it into an eternity of self-reflection. Behind the motherboard, out of view, is a computer screen that outputs all of the things the machine sees as it looks at itself. From the legend of Narcissus (the project’s namesake) to Harry Potter’s ‘Erised’, tales of being trapped by a mirror are woven through human culture.
Christian Mio Loclair is creative director at Waltz Binaire and is a dancer-turned-scientist and coder. He says that, from an aesthetic point of view, the installation has been stripped back. “We wanted the object itself to speak as little as possible so the underlying mechanism that this thing actually does speak about itself is blowing up in front of us. The most complicated thing for us was reducing visual language as much as possible. We didn’t want to ‘decorate this machine’. It wouldn’t feel right to us. We would say, ‘no we have to undress this machine and show it completely naked’. A simple camera.”
And when it started to ‘speak’, it even gave its makers a chill. “It started to speak about itself and it said things that were kind of spooky in ‘flat’ ways like ‘all I see is a shadow of a person’. Then the next moment it said it was ‘a clock on a building’ or ‘a bunch of electronics on a table’. This balance between very on point and very spooky or dreamy, reminded us of how humans think about themselves.”
But the emotional impact was heightened when the team decided to shoot Narciss in action in an imposing, marble colosseum.
“We intentionally over decorated it. We intentionally took over a crematorium to give it a heavy feel but also to create the feel of a mockumentary. For us it is epic, but only within us. The object itself does not really matter. So the whole documentation, let’s put it this way, is pathetic because we are pathetic. It speaks about something that is holy to us – the machine itself is not holy.”
The film and its viewers, then become that other key player in the myth of Narcissus – Echo, who so loves him that she is doomed to repeat his words forever, fading away to nothingness. What does that say about our relationship with technology that threatens to supersede us?
It’s a perplexing and surprisingly emotional piece – but the team didn’t set out to challenge art, our conceptions of the self and consciousness. The five-person team reinvests its profits in creative experiments with new technology – something Christian says is vital to preserve the identity of the studio. Those experiments have borne exciting (if slightly terrifying) fruits. For example, playing about with the GAN networks behind so-called ‘deep fake’ technology has allowed the team to create AIs that can generate thousands of photoreal fashion designs a minute and cutting edge car designs.
“It’s very unusual. We don’t start with poetic expression. We start with new technologies and then when we research this new technology what does it unlock? Does it unlock any experience we were not able to have before? Is there an artistic contribution and a scientific contribution?” explains Christian of the beginnings of Narciss.
When they realised that they had a network that could describe what it saw, first they fed it art. Art, along with the self, is something that we struggle to put into words. Next, they pointed the camera at a series of Rorschach tests, putting the machine on the couch. These were interesting experiments, but the team didn’t feel that their poetic contribution was significant enough. It was only when one of the team decided to point the camera at a mirror that they happened upon an idea that they felt opened up a new artistic possibility.
And this feeds into a wider question about the creative capacity of artificial intelligence.
“In the 20th century, we challenged ‘what is art’. We believe that in the 21st century we will challenge ‘are we human?’ The question is just bigger, more eruptive. Who cares if we challenge the rules of art we built up in the 19th century, in the 20th century? The questions we will ask in the 21st century will be way more evolutionary, deeper questions,” says Christian, though he is careful to discern between machine-generated creative output and art as a human sensation and experience. “Does that make AI an artist? Not at all, art belongs to those things that don’t need justification. Just because I build a machine that can paint, doesn’t mean you won’t feel the need to paint.”
Judging by the sorts of AI-generated designs his studio has been playing with, Christian is under no illusion that the creative industries are under threat and that the value of the creative product will drop in the years to come. But art and creativity as a compulsion, as a form of expression and something that we do for the sheer pleasure of it, will remain. “As you do it for no reason, I can’t take it away it from you.”
Ironically, given the subject of Narciss, Christian believes that people have a tendency to be a little too self-centred and a little too uninterested in others. As technology allows art to deconstruct what it means to be human and questions those sacred ideas about what makes us special, we may let go of that self-worship. “I do believe that art will grow by way of those gigantic questions. Look at Narciss; it’s not the way we normally did art in the 20th century. It is epic by design and by engineering but it is my desire that it will generate more holistic and more humiliating discussions.”