Super-Curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev Talks About Hito Steyerl’s Latest Work and Why AI Is Actually ‘Artificial Stupidity’

We caught up with the museum director in Turin.

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. Photo by Andrea Guermani.

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s office is secreted away in a corner of the labyrinthine Castello di Rivoli in Turin. A former residence of the Royal House of Savoy, the castle now provides the magnificent setting for the Italian city’s foremost contemporary art museum. From here, the unflagging curator and museum director, who is to receive CCS Bard’s prestigious award for Curatorial Excellence next year, presides over her kingdom. That is, when she is not running biennials or carrying out her teaching duties as a visiting professor at Northwestern University, half a world away.

I am here to talk about the Castello di Rivoli’s new show by the celebrated artist Hito Steyerl, “The City of Broken Windows,” which is currently on view. But since Steyerl’s latest work touches on wider themes of artificial intelligence and power, our interview quickly expands to touch on how these themes have played out in the art world, with Christov-Bakargiev making her characteristically wide-ranging and erudite connections—ranging across the work of “AI artists” to the controversies around Christie’s $450-million sale of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi, and to the philosophical significance of autocorrect.

 

“Artificial Stupidity”

Artificial Intelligence is trendy in art, symbolized by the interest in Christie’s recent sale of an algorithmically-generated work by Obvious. This kind of work, Christov-Bakargiev says, shows how the art world misunderstands technology more than anything else. Indeed, she refers to “artificial intelligence” as “artificial stupidity.”

“Artists who fetishize the medium, whatever that medium, they’re just generally not good artists,” the curator postulates. “A good artist, a real artist, will reflect on the implications of a technological revolution like AI and they’ll use it to show certain implications on our subjectivity.”

Co-founders of Obvious; Pierre Fautrel, Gauthier Vernier, and Hugo Caselles-Dupré. Courtesy of Obvious.

Co-founders of Obvious; Pierre Fautrel, Gauthier Vernier, and Hugo Caselles-Dupré. Courtesy of Obvious.

Despite the spectacular results for the Obvious sale, the museum director doesn’t think artists are under threat from competition from AI. “Art has only a little bit to do with creating innovative forms or imagining new patterns. Art is rather a kind of empirical philosophy. It’s like doing philosophy through practical means.” Because many critics, curators, art historians, collectors, and magazines fail to see this, Christov-Bakargiev says, “there’s a huge amount of stuff that circulates in the art world but is not art according to me.”

The conversation we should be having about AI, she argues, concerns the historic relationship between technological change, culture, and humanity. A reader of science fiction (and a big fan of “A Cyborg Manifesto” theorist Donna Haraway), Christov-Bakargiev offers a bleak vision of the future of AI.

“Science and scientific revolutions are always ushering in catastrophes, as well as good things,” she explains. She points to the scientific revolution of the 1500s, when technical progress went hand in hand with colonialism and the beginning of devastating religious wars in Europe. Similarly, the industrial revolution ultimately enabled the horrifying casualties of World War I. With the discovery of atomic power came the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“So, sure, it’s great progress, but there are intellectuals and artists out there who say it’s hard for society to negotiate scientific and technological revolution.” Indeed, without wanting to sound like “a Cassandra,” Christov-Bakargiev links the rise of AI with an anti-feminist turn in society. “In this patriarchal drive to abolish the organic biological reproduction system through the alliance between genetics and technology, we are going into a dangerous world,” she warns.

 

“A Dead Fish”

The art market has conditioned the current reception of AI, Christov-Bakargiev argues, which is keeping its true significance from view. “When you have the art market selling computer-made paintings, and you have the art market selling pseudo-Leonardos, it’s about investment. It’s no longer about art.”

She is referring to another celebrated Christie’s sale, this one of Salvator Mundi, which has been attributed by some to Leonardo da Vinci and went for a record-shattering sum. Christov-Bakargiev has publicly shared her belief (on Twitter) that the $450 million painting is not the real deal.

A woman holds up a paddle with the likeness of Leonardo da Vinci's "Salvator Mundi" at Christie's. Photo courtesy Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images.

A woman holds up a paddle with the likeness of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” at Christie’s. Photo courtesy Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images.

So, what is her theory about why the work is being kept from public view at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, where it was due to go on show September 18? “Well, they already have a beautiful Leonardo in the Louvre Abu Dhabi, coming from the Louvre in Paris, and she’s gorgeous,” she says. “Why would you hang this painting that looks like a dead fish?”

In the end, Christov-Bakargiev maintains that the debate around Salvator Mundi is not a question of connoisseurship.

“Art historians must be precise,” she says. “You have to be able to reconstruct the history of a painting’s whereabouts, not only analyze its style and materials. When you have a hole of 200 years in the provenance history, it is not ethical to say it’s a Leonardo.”

 

The City of Broken Windows

In the Italian museum’s Manica Lunga wing, Christov-Bakargiev has co-curated (with the art historian and critic Marianna Vecellio) the latest exhibition of German artist Hito Steyerl. It is, quite literally, a powerful pairing: Both Christov-Bakargiev and Steyerl have previously topped ArtReview’s annual “Power List.” 

“It’s both a very harsh and a very poetic exhibition, very minimal in a way, but very conceptual,” the curator says, emphasizing how different The City of Broken Windows is from Steyerl’s usually visually striking work. It is, she says, “subtle and non-spectacular” in comparison with the artist’s acclaimed piece from the 2015 Venice Biennale, Factory of the Sun.

The City of Broken Windows (2018) marks Steyerl’s first new work since Hell Yeah We Fuck Die two years ago. The 2016 work was made for the São Paulo Biennial, and looked at robotics. In her new installation, weaving together text, sound, and cinema, Steyerl continues her own investigations into artificial intelligence.

Hito Steyerl’s “The City of Broken Windows” on view at the Castello di Rivoli. Photo courtesy Castello di Rivoli.

Though Steyerl’s views on the technology diverge somewhat from the museum director’s, the exhibition emerged from a shared interest in how technology affects human subjectivity.

AI is meant to work for humans by sometimes copying and sometimes predicting their activity. But, Christov-Bakargiev theorizes, often this function reverses, with human users coming to emulate the way the machine works. She gives the example of auto-correct: Sometimes it is so stubborn about what it thinks we mean to text that we give up negotiating and just hit send anyway. In this way, the machine is producing subjects, rather than serving them.

For her part, Steyerl calls this feedback loop a “reverb.” The concept literally echoes through this exhibition in the form of an artificial intelligence’s incorrect attempt to recreate the sound of breaking windows, producing instead a kind of uncanny chiming. It’s also mirrored in the way in which text by Steyerl is printed across the walls, its meaning seemingly breaking down, the grammar collapsing in on itself à la Gertrude Stein.

Hito Steyerl’s “The City of Broken Windows” on view at the Castello di Rivoli. Photo courtesy Castello di Rivoli.

“AI changes our way of thinking,” Christov-Bakargiev says. “What Hito Steyerl is working on is how the brain—and how we—are being changed by this entanglement with AI.” In that way, artist and curator alike are working to make art a place to debate some of the most important questions about what it means to be human today. 

Hito Steyerl: The City of Broken Windows” runs through June 30, 2019 at the Castello di Rivoli, Turin.


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