“Zombie Hand,” originally uploaded to Google Street View by Adalberto Menardi. (Kyle Williams via Google Maps)

Sad Robot: Developing the Global Art Forum

ART AFRICA chats with Shumon Basar at the latest Global Art Forum

 

Organised by commissioner Shumon Basar and his co-directors, Noah Raford and Marlies Wirth, the 2018 edition of the Global Art Forum – titled ‘I am not a robot’ – found its inspiration in automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI). ART AFRICA spoke to Basar about the Forum, how it tackles issues around “the cultural temperature of our direct moment in time”, and Dubai’s role in hosting an event like this.

 

ART AFRICA: We’d like to know about the process behind developing the Global Art Forum – how do you organise and get all these minds together for it?

Shumon Basar: It’s a continuously evolving process, and one that I had the pleasure of starting with Antonia Carver when she was the director here. We decided that the ‘art talk fair format’ had become too familiar, and there was an opportunity to do something different here. I’ve been coming to Art Dubai since the beginning – it’s hard to imagine now, but 10 or 12 years ago it was a very different landscape. Things that we now take for granted weren’t necessarily there. There wasn’t as much of a discursive culture as we are now more familiar with. So I thought, let’s use this opportunity to create a discursive platform that is quite ambitious, that in a way sees itself as somewhere almost like a pop-up university and we’re going to have a theme each year and I’m just going to use the money to invite the most intelligent, brilliant people from around the world. We’re going to make it intentionally heterogeneous and that art won’t be privileged anymore – it will just be one thing amongst many other things. You have to understand art in context to other things and not just in relation to itself.

The theme ‘I am not a robot’ is a sequel to the last three. Three years ago we looked at technology, two years ago we looked at the idea of the future, and last year we looked at trade. If you imagine some weird laboratory and you put all these three things together, you get automation. It’s a consequence of something that’s evolving over a number of years, but at the same time it tries to take a kind of cultural temperature of our current moment in time, that’s been very important.

 

“Legend,” originally uploaded to Google Street View by Arthur Star. (Kyle Williams via Google Maps)Legend, originally uploaded to Google Street View by Arthur Star. (Kyle Williams via Google Maps)

 

You’ve mentioned the importance of an event like this happening in Dubai – it’s like a ‘future city’, with a proper plan. Could you perhaps touch on this?

I’ve been thinking about the future the minute I landed here 13 years ago. Particularly that period before the financial crisis in 2008, there was an extraordinary, physically palpable energy, it was in the air. It wasn’t only in the air, it was on billboards – basically every billboard was about what was going to happen, some future development. You couldn’t distinguish between fact or fiction. I think by the end of the 20th century the idea of the future, in a sense, had kind of come to an end. Partly because there was so much history; there’s a sense in which the more history you have the more pressure you have on your ability to project into the future. Of course here’s the rhetoric – I mean there’s tens of thousands of years of history, so it’s not that they don’t have history in Dubai – but rhetorically speaking they’re able to say, “we’ve gone from desert to down town in decades”.  That puts them in a rhetorical position where they’re able to frame the concept of the future, I think in a quintessentially 21st century way. I always say the leap that they made here, they went from pre-industrial to post-industrial, they basically skipped the industrial. Which is something that we’re seeing now as you may well know in Africa, it’s becoming a more common phenomena, but I think Dubai was one of those first places, almost like the canary in the coal mine at the beginning of the 21st century. This notion of the future, I think for me has always been inextricably linked to Dubai.

When I got to know Noah Raford and what they do at the Dubai Future Foundation – to see them formally instrumentalise AI as part of nation building, as part of city planning – I realised that it’s all around us.

 

“Zombie Hand,” originally uploaded to Google Street View by Adalberto Menardi. (Kyle Williams via Google Maps)Zombie Hand, originally uploaded to Google Street View by Adalberto Menardi. (Kyle Williams via Google Maps)

 

There’s a Minister of State for Happiness here in Dubai – it’s quite comical, we’ve seen a huge smiley face on one of the government buildings, and a few banners that say “happiness is a journey that started with Zayed”. This all being said, what is the significance of discussing ‘depressed’ robots in a city that has a Minister for Happiness?

As I say again and again, it’s the unintended consequences of technology that dictates the future. So you can design a robot to be happy but in reality, after a week it will start complaining about back ache, it’ll miss its mother, it’ll have a sense of meaningless in life. Aaron Tuesday, who is going to give this talk on Friday is a really fantastic philosopher. When we were discussing this and I said, “Okay Aaron, what do you want to talk about?” He said, “Isn’t it weird that when you look at the history of robots in cinema they are generally played as homicidal maniacs.” So basically there is this idea that once AI reaches super intelligence, what it’ll want to become is a killer. He was like, “Well actually, once they’ve reached super intelligence they’re just going to become depressed. Actually it’ll be our job to look after the depressed robots” –  and this is what he calls the clinic of AI. It’s important to speculate, and speculate beyond the narratives that we’re given, certainly by the companies or the scientists or the technologists who are designing and building AI and automation.

It becomes more important – because the world seems to be more dictated by technologists, by CEO’s of technology companies – that we have creative, critical minds, thinking through all the things that they’re not telling us, all the things that they’re not even able to conceive of themselves, because they’re on their own mission. Maybe it’s romantic of me, but I do feel like cultural producers are in one of the best positions to think about this. We have the history of science fiction as proof of that. We’re living in a weird time now where I feel like the future is something we’re inhabiting more and more, rather than it being something that is yet to come.

 

Aaron Schuster presenting ‘AM I SAD ROBOT: THE CLINIC OF AI’ at the GLOBAL ART FORUM 2018. © Brendon Bell-RobertsAaron Schuster presenting ‘AM I SAD ROBOT: THE CLINIC OF AI’ at the GLOBAL ART FORUM 2018. © Brendon Bell-Roberts

 

Aaron Schuster presenting ‘AM I SAD ROBOT: THE CLINIC OF AI’ at the GLOBAL ART FORUM 2018. © Brendon Bell-RobertsAaron Schuster presenting ‘AM I SAD ROBOT: THE CLINIC OF AI’ at the GLOBAL ART FORUM 2018. © Brendon Bell-Roberts

Shumon Basar is a British writer, editor and curator, and is currently the Commissioner of Global Art Forum at Art Dubai.