Image by Casper Schipper, 24h HOST collaborator
»A lot of times people see my work as addressing technology, but to me, I see it more simply as addressing what it is to be a person today.« –Lauren McCarthy
A first date, hosting a party, moving in with a new partner – these social events might be more frightening for some than for others. But what if artificial intelligence could help to ease the emotional stress? Artist Lauren McCarthy from Los Angeles/USA, whose projects address the rapid developments of digital and online technologies in a playful and humorous way, turned her nightmare – hosting a party – into an AI art performance consisting of a real-time live event and a website with live updates. Will the system help her or will the machine exceed human abilities to exhaustion? What will fail first?
Find out more about her project for the web residencies by Solitude and ZKM on the topic »An AI Summer« and get the software to run your own party.
CH: The 24H HOST performance, as you explain in your concept, is a small party that lasts for 24 hours, driven by software that automates the event, embodied in human HOST, which becomes increasingly depleted. How can one imagine the scene? What will we see and what do I have to do to attend the party?
LM: Guests book a time in advance to enter the party. Every five minutes throughout the 24 hours, a new guest will arrive and one will depart. Upon arriving, the guest enters a small structure that represents my home as the party HOST. From there, it is a scenario similar to a small cocktail party at home, but each aspect is somehow automated by software. As the HOST, I serve as the emotional interface to the AI, enacting directions with a human touch. I don’t want to say too much more than that, so as to leave some surprise open for the guests.
The party takes place at MU Artspace in Eindhoven, so you must be physically present there to participate. It is free to sign up here: http://24hour.host. Please note this signup is only for the physical performance event. For those that are not able to make it to Eindhoven, there will be some live updates at http://24hourhost.schloss-post.com (no need to sign up for this portion).
CH: How did the idea to create a party as an art performance come to mind when applying for the call for web residencies on the topic »An AI Summer,« which focuses on the machine intelligence in the context of art asking for alternative approaches to training and teaching the machine?
LM: To be honest, I began with my nightmare scenario. Parties and social events with strangers always make me anxious. Being the host means you are most responsible if people don’t have a good time. The thought of being trapped as the host in a party made me feel absolutely queasy.
I wondered, if I add AI to this nightmare, would it make it easier or more terrifying? On the one hand, I now have a system analyzing and aiding my interactions. In theory, this should make things smoother. But now I have two anxieties – the possibility of my personal failure as host, as well as the possibility of software failure due to some bug I may accidentally program. Then, having software drive me means the host and party can transcend the normal human limitations and durations. Over the course of 24 hours, I wonder which will fail first, and whether we will gain a more nuanced understanding of the line between human and artificial intelligence.
us+, a collaboration with Kyle McDonald
CH: Can you further explain the idea of people acting as the human interface for AI systems? What is the role of the human and what is the role of the software, the AI?
LM: Part of the concept of this piece is based on the hypothesis that as automation and AI takes more of our jobs, a remaining role for humans will be as the emotional interface for AI. We may seek the efficiency and optimization of algorithms, but we will still desire the emotional experience of interacting with humans. We will still want to be greeted with a smile, held in a hug, led by the hand of another person. My role in this performance is to serve as the human vehicle for the AI’s directions, delivering them with real emotion and awareness of the person in front of me. Over the duration of the performance as I become more depleted, you may wonder whether you are seeing the AI laid bare without human interface, or if the host’s struggling exhaustion is actually the most human part.
»We may seek the efficiency and optimization of algorithms, but we will still desire the emotional experience of interacting with humans. We will still want to be greeted with a smile, held in a hug, led by the hand of another person.« Lauren McCarthy
CH: With your previous performance LAUREN you were also addressing AI as a topic attempting to be better than an AI. What was the project about also if you put it into relation to the current project for the web residencies?
LM: Both LAUREN and 24h HOST are imagining different roles humans might take on in the future with AI. In LAUREN, I attempt to become a human smart home, or a human version of Amazon Alexa. This means, if you »get LAUREN«, I will come into your house, install a series of networked devices, cameras, etc, and watch over you 24/7 and control your home for you. I try to be better than an AI because I can understand my subjects as people and anticipate their needs. In this project, I wonder, how much longer will this be true? And how does it feel to know there’s a human on the other end watching, rather than Amazon servers collecting all of your data?
24h HOST explores a different possibility where, rather than competing with AI, we each recognize the roles we’re best suited for. Whether that division of labor represents a hopeful alternative is left to the audience to decide.
CH: With your apps, art installations, and performances, you address the madness of social media and the quantified life – but always in a playful way. What are your main concerns and critiques and what role does humor play in your work?
LM: I often position works in the ambiguous space between critique and optimism. I’m not interested in telling people what to feel about our current reality, instead I want to give them a space to reflect on this, and decide for themselves. The pace of technological development can put us in the mindset that we must make snap judgments and react quickly and loudly to every change, or comply without thought. My goal is to create a moment in which we can stop and think, engage with the tensions of our evolving social systems, and tease out the good and bad.
Humor offers a way to engage and ask questions rather than impose opinions. A joke deals by necessity with multiple interpretations and contradictions. We are familiar with a joke as a moment to stop and acknowledge expectations and see our own perspective from a different vantage point. This mechanism fits well with the goals of my work. Plus, it serves as a good litmus test for the projects I pursue. If I find myself laughing when I think about an idea, I know that will give me the energy to see it through to realization.
CH: How do you get inspired for new projects? And what can art do in the context of the debates around the fast developments of new digital and online technologies?
LM: I begin with the situations that cause me the most confusion and anxiety. A first date, hosting a party, moving in with a new partner. I then see if there’s some way I can twist it around into something different using the tools available. I often feel I’m very bad at connecting with new people, so as I’m twisting, I’m looking for ways to hack my way into a closeness with another person that I might not normally be able to access.
»My goal is to create a moment in which we can stop and think, engage with the tensions of our evolving social systems, and tease out the good and bad.« Lauren McCarthy
A lot of times people see my work as addressing technology, but to me, I see it more simply as addressing what it is to be a person today. Art can give us a lens to see ourselves differently, and this is more useful than ever as technology works to obscure this awareness.
CH: As AI also plays a more and more important role in art challenging the uniqueness of the human genius, the question comes up, what is left for the human creativity? How do you approach this context being an artist yourself?
LM: I draw a distinction in my performance between AI and human intelligence, but really I see this as more of a device or provocation than a fact. As AI and our understanding of it develops, I think it will become less meaningful to talk of it as one versus the other, and instead we will see the two combine in different ways that expand our idea of what both human and artificial intelligence may be. As an artist, I’m excited, but also feeling it’s more urgent than ever to keep prodding people to consider the future we’re creating for ourselves.