Caring Machines and Institutional angst

Who has the right to tell a (hi)story? Who owns the objects in ethnological museums and their data? The artists Nora Al-Badri and Nikolai Nelles criticize the power structures of the museums of the Global North and are convinced by the possibilities of more emancipatory object biographies through technology. With open source activists, they created the NefertitiBot, a project supported by the web residencies at Solitude and ZKM, which builds on the already well and widely known NefertitiHack for which they illegally scanned the Nefertiti head at Neues Museum Berlin and released the 3D data. The bot now takes on an agency for material objects of other cultures in museums to make their stories visible. Are machines more caring and human toward the world and all its inhabitants? Read an interview with the artists and wake up the bot (Beta version) with »dream Nefertiti«.

Clara Herrman: Your project NefertitiBot is part of the larger project NefertitiHack or The Other Nefertiti, for which you secretly scanned the head of Nerfertiti in the Neues Museum Berlin without permission of the museum and released the 3D data of Nefertiti’s head under a Creative Commons Licence. Can you elaborate again on your critique and your techniques to propagate it and what role the bot plays here?

Nora Al-Badri & Nikolai Nelles: Frankly, museums and cultural institutions are power structures – they were constructed to show the power of a country, whereby possessing things from all over the world was like possessing the world in a quite literal way, following Jean Baudrillard’s thoughts. You can sense this notion until today, mixed with a great deal of inherent institutional self-preservation. Museums serve an ideological role by separating artifacts from their origins and depriving people of their historical memory and presenting the history of »the Other« from a truly (!) scientific standpoint. The concept of heritage is colonial itself, hence, buzzwords like »shared heritage« become duplicitous (hypocritical) terms.

From a digital rights perspective, most museums are acting as gatekeepers to cultural means by claiming the interpretational sovereignty over their collections as well as its digital derivatives. By doing this, these institutions are committing so-called copy fraud, since all ancient artifacts are in the public domain per se. This of course is applicable not only for ancient objects, but for all works of art whose creator has been dead for more than 70 years. Our work questions this institutional monopoly and basically asks, who has the right to tell the (hi)story? And who owns the objects and their data? Nefertiti as an icon represents thousands of plundered artifacts from the Global South. We are certainly criticizing German institutions for not being transparent about the violent context of their objects and for silencing most debates about the colonial entanglement of the museums’ collections; from which they are apparently profiting until today and where provenance is instrumentalized not to repatriate.

Our aim is to decolonize these object biographies and transcend them from the vicious biases of the dominant imperial mindset, toward a more democratic and discourse-oriented way of defining cultural value. We are convinced of the possibilities of more emancipatory object biographies through technology, but at the same time being skeptical of too celebratory technologies often unfolding as virtual banalities. As a reaction to our admittedly provocative yet potentially constructive artistic practice, we observed quite a lot of »institutional angst« of losing relevance by the museums but also amazing responses from museums where e.g. the Nefertiti Hack is seen as an »eye-opener« and best practice … After all, within only one day, thousands interacted with the dataset.

The NefertitiBot with its neuronal AI capabilities could be described as simultaneously a voice of the subaltern taking on an agency for objects, opposing the dominant narrative as well as experimenting towards post-authorship in curatorial practice and interpretational sovereignty. We will elaborate on this later.

CH: You work together with open-source activists and the backend which uses NLP (neurolinguistic programming) and goes beyond training data to realize the piece. How is the bot developed and how does it work exactly?

NA & NN: Currently the bot’s backend is running on the platform, an AI for chatbots. This is a community-based project initiated around the conference FOSSASIA, where each year a lot of Asia’s open-source activists come together and where we had the chance to discuss cultural commons and the role of museums and digitization two years ago. This is how this collaboration started. For the bot we are only creating and training one »skill,« all the other skills are created and trained by the whole community and through interaction. After all, the bot is a self-learning system and an interface.

One motivation of the community as well as ours is, that it will be crucial that these technologies are not only created, developed, and distributed by a few multinational software companies or governmental services, but formed by the people. We as artists are the professional dilettantes, to quote Christoph Schlingensief, experimenting, applying, speculating and vertically expanding this technology as well as showing the limits. Today, chatbots are mostly applied in businesses as banal servants (service providers) or for entertainment in business (customer engagement). So NefertitiBot is not only challenging the politics of representation, but the politics of technology as well.

CH: With your project, you question not only the practice of museums but the anthropocentric way of seeing the world as such. I find it very interesting that with the rise of artificial intelligence you paint a rather positive picture of the future as you consider the machines to become more human toward the world and all its inhabitants, which is quite the opposite of what many people and especially artists would say.

NA & NN: Of course it’s more of a philosophical question we ask here and our working hypothesis, but during showcasing the beta version of the Bot at Mozfest this year for example it became very clear that the participants regarded the current museum practices in a lot of cases as unethical, whereas the response of the machine was based on well articulated ethics. So that spoke for itself.

But you also put it positively in your question, because you could accuse us of painting a rather negative image of the presence created by humans today. We are maybe with author Phillip K. Dick, who already rendered the living machine, the robot as the one who is capable of acting human, based on humanitarian values. Whereas the human evolves to be a recklessly selfish being. We are also tempted to answer with a question: Is the manmade machine still an independent entity or not?

CH: You also discuss the agency of inanimate objects to give voice to their stories. What counternarratives do you use?

NA & NN: We wouldn’t say that there are specific counter-narratives necessarily. It’s very contextual though. But generally we regard the agency of inanimate things as a part of the subaltern, which is more than humans, but every-thing and every-body outside the colony and thus outside the dominant narrative. The NefertitiBot is a digital embodiment of the human-artefact interaction, where artefacts are not marginalized to their materiality nor to their social and cultural construction and meaning made by humans as a mere epiphenomenon to humans. This itself might already be the counter-narrative…

CH: As you criticize the power structures of museums and the art world, do you think AI would make the curatorial process more democratic?

NA & NN: To be honest, the curatorial process is currently under the dictatorship of the expert. Very few specifically educated people decide either about the (re-)presentation of the exhibit or about the economy of the exhibit also e.g. by using big data of the audience to detect and track which objects are most successful or popular. So what we are speculating is that almost any other model, including an AI, would be more democratic than that. But besides being more democratic what we are mainly looking for is being less biased and less human-centric. Some of the smartest computer scientists in the world are currently working on eliminating human biases in AI, so this is merely a matter of time.

Even just the fact of having a bot re-contextualize a collection as an addition to a human curator will change the perception of the audience itself. Finally a bot, which is not employed by the institution or paid by might be in the position to ask other questions, right?

CH: Being artists yourselves – is the imagination of machines replacing human creativity or even outcompeting it not frightening?

NA & NN: On the contrary, machines can help us being more creative. Take the example of dinosaurs (yes, one of our latest pieces involves dinosaurs from what is Tanzania today)! We don’t think that a machine would propose such funny and creative conclusions that our human natural scientists made when they first found dinosaur bones … Yet one of the main tasks of paleontologists today is to identify bones and classify them to species. To be able to do this on a significant scale, you would have to be an experienced paleontologist having years of training. An AI could do this job much better with very little training, just one database. Then our human paleontologists would have more time to imagine the life of dinosaurs and their potentially even philosophical relevance. This is one scenario, but of course it’s very likely that machines will develop their own creativity, which seems more likely to us might be complementary to the human, not competing or just mimicking. We are rather interested in finding out how much technology is already changing our behavior in creative processes.

CH: What are your wishes for the future of museums?

NA & NN: Wow, that’s a big question and we have a lot of ideas but that would smash the web page here 😉

As you probably noticed during the interview, we see quite an emancipatory potential in applying technologies in the realm of the museum as cultural commons. Nevertheless all of that it is not about an indigenization or a romanticized view of technology, but rather about emancipated narratives and explorations of »the digital« and art. With our practice we want to contribute to the museum as becoming a truly epistemic space. But to answer this on a meta level we like to put it that way: we wish that museums would embrace the fact that together with society, they are changing over time. What comes after decolonization? The museum as process and as a space of openness, sincerity, embodied ethics and of constant negotiation about their very own nature. Certainly the imperial museum is passé!