On Art

Elena Knox and Androids at the Door

Interview with media artist Elena Knox.

Elena Knox and Katsumi Watanabe, Omikuji, 2017, networked robotic installation, robot by Ikegami Lab and Ishiguro Lab

Australian artist Elena Knox stands out in the current contemporary art scene in a number of ways. She is a key figure at work in reconciling traditional art institutions, including those receptive to media art and feminist practices, with AI and robotics. She has achieved this by conceptualizing a theme of companionship that speaks with intent to the current moment as well as developing a tech narrative that moves beyond the interactive and brings us to the inclusive.

Another atypical characteristic has to do with choosing to remain in Tokyo. As she explains, a research grant brought her to Japan, where she developed a number of key collaborations. But more significantly, Ms Knox has seemingly made the choice to be an international contemporary artist based in Tokyo, of which there are very few. The reasons for this are developed in our conversation. Finally, she got gallery representation at Anomaly, a Tokyo venue which also has the noted collective Chim Pom among its roster of artists. In the last two years, her work has been shown at the Mori Museum in Tokyo, at the Yokohama Triennale and is currently on display at the Bangkok Art Biennale (BAB).

1-What brought you to Japan and what kept you here? 

I came to Japan in 2016 on a national science scholarship program. It’s called the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, and it brings select scholars from overseas to attach to research facilities nationwide. I believe it has been the only time they have awarded this fellowship to an artist. 

Around the completion of this 2-year fellowship I had already begun a few high-profile projects with Japanese museums and so on, and my host institution, Waseda University, invited me to stay longer. I worked on several projects there, and then became an adjunct researcher at Waseda and a full-time artist, but I’m still here in Tokyo. Life is getting busier.

2-What do you think AI and robotics have brought to the field of art? 

I suppose in the life-copies-art-copies-life cycle, they’re just another phenomenon to be considered through a concentrated lens. As subject matter they have social, economic, and ethical dimensions. For audiences particularly, the futuristic aesthetic often employed by artists in this field invites a consideration of impending social change, our capabilities (or not) as humans and the choices we need to make collectively at this juncture. Then, if you think of art as creative expression, you can use robotics and AI as tools, platforms, performers. They are quite different though, the materiality of robotics and the ethereality of AI—even though data is material in its enormous server farms: it’s still taking up space and consuming energy.

My interest in these phenomena is in the issues of replication and of anthropomorphosis in techno-science, so my work never strays far from a critique of the human. I try to amplify human impulses to totemism, idolatry and fetishism—these are age-old strategies, by which, I feel, we are attempting to commune with the parahuman, and to push back against our ultimate loneliness in the galaxy. I believe this basic, human existential panic at feeling alone inside inconceivable vastness creates the most interesting behaviour we exhibit as a species.

One of my video artworks, currently exhibited in Bangkok Art Biennale, is a dialogue scene between a robot and a human.It’s called Pathetic Fallacy, a term that means designating human traits, senses or emotions to inanimate things. I search for the root of this habit, whether it manifests in technology or elsewhere. Of course, there’s a relevant reference to Japan’s animist, Shinto history and how this spreads through the Japanese cultural approach to robotics and the digital, but the discussion is usually oversimplified. For a thing to be even “a little bit alive” it must also be subject to time in a particular, finite way; the immortality fantasy in techno-science is countervailed. Pathetic Fallacy is part of my first Actroid Series, which is made up of six pieces exploring various epochal anxieties around visual appearance and the ageing body, dramatised sex, and cheating death. 

3-The moment seems ripe for this (AI and robotics), why do you think institutions are embracing this now? 

If, by institutions, you mean art museums and the like: they both benefit from, and are beholden to, presenting emerging techniques. So they must engage with it. However, I have observed the absolute curiosity and enthusiasm of the public in relation to big AI/Art shows I’ve been involved in. People want to see: to get behind the curtain of data, as it were. 

At this moment, people are fascinated by the deep “mystery”that is thought to reside behind the actions of “intelligent” machines. Personally, I don’t think there is any mystery at all, but it’s necessary to tease out why we project a kind of mystical realm into the world of machines. My installation Omikuji was exploring this. It toured to China, Hong Konga nd Korea from 2017 to 2019, and used a livestream hook-up with an AI robot in Japan to deliver sound-art fortunes to museum visitors in any location —in Japanese, omikuji are fortunes obtained for a small fee at public shrines. The robot that I borrowed for this work, from the Tokyo MIRAIKAN (National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation), is equipped with experimental AI that reads sensor input, and I was able to work with it in such a way that each fortune “sung” by the robot is unique according to the input of the visitor. Visitors receive their special omikuji as .mp3 sent to their phones.

Elena Knox and Katsumi Watanabe, Omikuji, 2017, networked robotic installation, robot by Ikegami Lab and Ishiguro Lab, installation view, Powerlong Art Center, Hangzhou, China

4-Hans Ulrich Obrist says that scientists are also artists. Whats your view on that? Are you an artist/scientist or a scientist/artist? 

I’m an artist who works with scientists. And as an academic,I’m stronger in social science than in “hard” science. But yes, I’ve always believed that scientists and artists are kin. We are all examining phenomena minutely, finding patterns, modifying standard behaviours, trying to show others the results of our experiments, trying to find new ways ahead. We are fascinated by the world and often desire to specialise quite finely, to understand a material or an approach as well as we can, and we dedicate a life to it.  

On a related note I’ve often included athletes in this category. There’s a lot of sport in my family…I’ve seen people strive to push human limits in this field too. Science, sport, art—all have a similar spirit in my view.

5-Do you see contemporary art, electronic art, and sound art as separate entities? Or do they each represent a facet of your work? 

I think my answer is “yes” to both these apparently opposing questions. They’re not mutually exclusive. But maybe especially sound art can be an entity of its own. It’s possible to aim for a sort of purity in this art form: the sound wave, apprehended through the one auditory sense (though tactility is also involved). This scene or discipline could be construed as separate, but it is also part of both the other fields. And yes,I use all of them to work. Music and sound in my recorded pieces are often original collaborations with Lindsay Webb, an artist based in Berlin.

6-Whats your notion of beauty in these fields, is it relevant? 

Beauty is some kind of recognition that we can have in an encounter, that the thing we’ve encountered can properly, or perhaps superlatively, signal what it’s like to be alive. So there is beauty in pain, in the mundane, and in the absurd, as well as in things that seem pleasing.

The artforms I choose to work in are expressive and dramaticas well as aesthetic. What I aim for is not a pure aesthetics, but an encounter, and it is “successful” if the encounter has a register of intensity. I’m not sure that a feeling of beauty is what I am aiming for exactly.

When we encounter something and our minds say, “that’s beautiful”, I guess I would call on the Kantian philosophy which says that beauty is a vibration. I do aim to make artworks that vibrate. And I choose media that already vibrate to various degrees: humans, sound, light, machines, electricity, and recently animals and plants.

7-How do you find the communities of each of these fields (or the community of all of them) in Japan? 

I’ve been welcomed in Japan and had interesting interactions with museums, independents, commercial galleries, artist-run spaces, community projects, it’s all here. Audiences are quite serious-minded. The community has a reputation for being slow to accept outsiders, but I think quite warm and supportive once one is “in”. To risk a stereotype: everyone works so hard. 

Japan’s noise music is internationally renowned. I never was into it before I came here, but now I’m performing it fairly regularly, as a solo artist and in a duo with local musician Darklaw. The community is dedicated and serious in spite of being wild at heart. There is something about the precise execution of excess in this discipline that is fascinating to me. Like an offload of excess, of unhelpful humanity, a scream into the void that melds with the universe’s white noise.Scientists have transposed the light waves viewable in outer space, and the movement of matter around black holes, into sound. It’s a pretty good noise concert. 

8-Can you tell us something about your collaboration with Kasumi Watanabe? 

Professor Watanabe is a cognitive scientist interested in implicit bias and unconscious cognition—this is an area of study that looks at how we judge before rational thinking, based on both stereotypes and prior experience. For me this is crucial in trying to access cultural leanings, to cause people to question or at least notice their implicit assumptions. I am studying the mathematical structure of belief systems: when a computational system comes to a certain conclusion based on input and its prior knowledge bank. Prof. Watanabe looks at this happening in the human body and brain. The processes are no by any means the same but, as AI is basically a human invention, there are clear resonances between the two fields.We don’t fully understand human cognition yet, and branches of AI research are focused on unexplainable computation, also beyond human comprehension. 

With Prof. Watanabe, I make art–science projects exploring sensory and computational perception and conviction in robots and artificial lifeforms. An example is Omikuji, described above.

9-Its been a very good year in Asia for you in spite of the pandemic. Will some works youve made this year travel outside Asia? 

I’ve been showing regularly across Asia for the last five years; I’d love to get back to Europe with this body of work, to see how it is received there!

In Japan recently, I re-editioned my 2019 installation Volcana Brainstorm in the 2020 Yokohama Triennale. This large installation thematises (among other things) volcanic islands and fertility, linking Japan and Hawaii. I’m hoping to present it in Hawaii, but this depends on the pandemic situation. I had planned to present Omikuji in Germany, but discussions waned as both travel and touch-sensitive art became a bit beleaguered. We’ll see how it goes next year and I am reconceiving it for voice rather than touch recognition.  

I’m also—very slowly—working on new robotic sculptures in collaboration with an American roboticist based in Washington DC, and I’m writing a book that will be published in Australia.

10-Has your ability to speak the language of engineers helped in getting funding from companies or government support?

I would acknowledge that framing projects in the logical lexicon of research has helped, for instance in taking a Japanese robot to the settlement closest to the North Pole in January 2019. I received scientific research funding for this trip which has resulted in my most recent major work Protective Seal (premiering in Echigo Tsumari Art Triennale, Japan 2021). The work is a blend of research and fantasy, but again, I see no dichotomy between science and art.

Developing a language to speak across disciplines is crucial, not necessarily to elicit funding, but to create support structures for society. Working on these structures is part of my work. 

Elena Knox
Artist photo by Lindsay Webb

Featured image: Elena Knox, Pathetic Fallacy, 2014, single channel video

%d bloggers like this: