You cannot miss the adverts all over Leipzig for DIMENSIONS: Digital Art since 1859. They’re plastered on billboards, Nextbikes and even taxis, posing intriguing questions like, “What was digital art like before it was all over the place?”
At least one of these advertisements has attracted some negative comments aimed at Palantir, the exhibition’s main sponsor. The critic stuck warning notices under the gigantic poster on Karl Heine Straße declaring that Palantir “is a bunch of alt-right assholes” and called the exhibition “art-washing.” The concern, presumably, is the company’s troubling role in providing technology services to government spy agencies, including the United States’ National Security Agency.
But if you make the journey to Wahren’s Pittlerwerke to experience the exhibition, you cannot fail to be impressed. Walking through a nineteenth-century painting with the help of 21st-century artificial intelligence is an unsettling experience. It’s easy to lose your grip on reality. When it happens in a building that dates back to Leipzig’s industrial revolution, you almost feel like an accidental time traveller.
And that’s just the artwork!
Building on the reputation of world-famous artists including Matthew McGinity (Australia), Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley (UK) and U-Ram Choe (South Korea), the exhibition has recruited philosophers and digital gurus to present talks and a symposium. So we have a chance to question the different versions of reality that digital artworks and NFTs present to us in the gallery.
NFTs are Non-fungible Tokens. They are stored on a blockchain or database where access is open but each artifact is secured. NFTs can be bought and sold just like paintings or sculptures in the real world. And they are, sometimes for millions of dollars.
The real world is a contested concept for some of the artists whose work appears in the DIMENSIONS exhibition. To help us to disentangle it, Professor Julian Nida Rümelin whirled us through the sweep of history from Plato’s ideal chairs to the fake news sneers of former U.S. President Donald Trump. German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) got a special mention, possibly because he was born in Leipzig and immortalised here in a primary school, street name and tram stop (not to mention those scrumptious chocolate biscuits).
But more importantly, Leibniz invented binary numbers, the basis for much of modern computing.
He also developed a philosophy based on the premise that the mind and the body are one. This opposes the dualism proposed by French philosopher René Descartes that is summed up in his famous phrase: Cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”).
Fascinating as it is to re-live the hot debates of the 17th century Enlightenment, it did seem quite far removed from DIMENSIONS and artworks created by artificial intelligence.
Still, Nida Rümelin is a bestselling author of pop philosophy books, and he was able to skillfully bring us up to the present, pivoting from Cartesian notions to the illusions created by augmented and virtual reality, which are presented to stunning effect in the exhibition.
With all this high-powered philosophy, the audience seemed somewhat confused, but also totally impressed.
No wonder the moderator of the panel discussion, co-curator Dan Xu, was visibly a bit nervous when it came to the panel discussion.
Ghana-based digital artist Ulf Langheinrich, a digital artist based in Ghana, and Antje Hundhausen, T Mobile’s vice president of brand experience, grappled with questions that are both age-old and very contemporary: What is real? Is real the same as true? If a work of art is made by software, who is the artist? Can AI really create new artifacts, articles and poetry, or does it just synthesise what is already out there on the internet into a new format? Can Chat GPT really write, or is it just a super-aggregator?
There was no time at the end for questions from the audience. So I did not get to ask the panel about why they did not sign an open letter, published in late March 2023, that issues a call “to immediately pause for at least six months the training of AI systems more powerful than GPT-4.” At the time of this article’s publication, the letter had been signed by more than 31,000 people, 200 of them experts that include SpaceX and Paypal inventor Elon Musk. The moratorium is needed, they write, to allow legal, regulatory and ethical experts to catch up with the rapid developments in artificial intelligence and the blurring of lines between what is real and not real.
So, I wanted to ask, why not?
Maybe they side with digital guru Jaron Lanier, who believes that Musk and company are just overreacting. Lanier maintains that artificial intelligence is not really artificial, but an extended network of human interactions carried out in the digital realm. As such, he believes there is no need for new rules to restrain and contain AI.
What is certain is that these questions really matter. We should all be asking them. We can question the new technologies without resorting to the brutish tactics of the Luddites who smashed up new machinery in factories like the Pittlerwerke, or even the handwritten notes alerting us to the activities of DIMENSIONS’ sponsor Palantir.
More Information on DIMENSIONS
DIMENSIONS is on display until 9 July 2023 at Pittlerwerke, Pittlerstraße 26, in Leipzig’s Wahren neighborhood. More information, including the museum’s hours and ticket prices, is available here.