Image: Agnieszka Kurant, A.A.I (10-15), 2017. Termite mounds built by colonies of termites from colored sand, gold and crystals. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles.
The Berggruen Institute today announced the inaugural Artist Fellows in its Transformations of the Human (ToftH) program, an ambitious, research-based initiative to track how developments in fields such as artificial intelligence, biotechnology and climate change are changing our understanding of what it means to be human. Ten conceptual artists who have already been engaged with these issues will now participate in existing ToftH working groups, contributing their insights to teams of scientists, engineers, and philosophers, while being commissioned to create projects that explore the rapidly shifting boundaries among our notions of nature, technology, and humanity. Commissioned artworks will form the nucleus of a new Berggruen Institute art collection and will be made available for exhibitions, catalogues, installations, or performance events.
The ten inaugural Artist Fellows are Nancy Baker Cahill, Ian Cheng, Stephanie Dinkins, Mara Eagle, Pierre Huyghe, Kahlil Joseph, Agnieszka Kurant, Rob Reynolds, Martine Syms, and Anicka Yi.
Established in 2018 under the direction of ToftH Founding Director Tobias Rees, ToftH maintains two existing fellowships. The first is tailored towards junior scholars as researchers with a postgraduate degree. These research positions run for three years, contingent on annual reviews, and comprise philosophers, artists, and social scientists who are placed into AI and biotech laboratories. Their task is to discover philosophical questions (instances of the transformation of the human) reverberating in the concrete everyday labor of the engineers and researchers. The second fellowship consists of a highly curated cohort of Residential Fellows recruited on an annual basis. The Residential Fellows are typically mid-career to senior academics, authors and journalists invited to work at Berggruen Institute headquarters in Los Angeles, at the Berggruen China Center for Beijing, and are directly integrated in the ToftH working groups. Through the new Artist Fellowship component of ToftH, artists will now join in this trailblazing activity and develop new ideas and work.
Nicolas Berggruen, Founder and Chairman of the Berggruen Institute, said, “We have invited these ten thinkers to be our first Artist Fellows because they are at the forefront of responding to these tensions and slippages in their work. We look forward to the ways they will expand our understanding of how our definition of humanity is changing. It is also a great pleasure to elevate the role of the arts at the Berggruen Institute by commissioning them to make the first works in our envisioned art collection.”
Tobias Rees said, “By placing artists in key research sites and fostering dialogue with technologists, we can help make artificial intelligence, biotech and climate change into visible places of experimentation for the way we think about ourselves as human. We hope to feed new findings back into the production of both AI and biotech, and so contribute to both human and non-human flourishing.”
Nancy Baker Cahill, an artist working at the intersection of fine art, new media, and activism, is Founder and Creative Director of 4th Wall, a free Augmented Reality (AR) public art platform exploring resistance and inclusive creative expression. For ToftH, she will produce a series of artistic investigations of the still-evolving future and explore its poetic and political potentials.
Ian Cheng, an artist who lives and works in New York City, has exhibited widely and is known in particular for simulations such as BOB (Bag of Beliefs), an AI creature whose body, personality, and story evolves across exhibitions. Details of his project will be announced at a later date.
Stephanie Dinkins, a transdisciplinary artist interested in creating platforms for ongoing dialogue about artificial intelligence as it intersects with race, gender, aging, and our future histories, is building a “data trust” that stores data in synthetically produced bacteria. Not limited to the data generated by humans, the trust will also comprise human genetic and microbiome date as well as that of our digital tools.
Mara Eagle works in a wide range of media to explore how pre-modern scientific writings and biotechnology alike destabilize our existing categories for understanding ourselves and the world. In her ToftH project, she will use texts from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (77-79 CE) to explore the collapse of the category of “nature” and the emergence of something yet to be established in relation to biotechnology.
In his widely known and respected art, Pierre Huyghe often makes works that present themselves as complex systems of life forms, inanimate objects, and technologies. In collaboration with Tobias Rees, Huyghe will focus on the differentiation of humans from nature and of humans from machines, embracing fields such as microbiome research, gene editing, neurotechnology, and artificial intelligence.
Kahlil Joseph, an artist and filmmaker best known for large-scale video installations, will undertake two closely related projects for ToftH. The first is the Future Humans Video Archive, a curated compilation of the responses of 100 people to questions about the future of being human. The second is a cinematographic capture of situations in which the modern concept of the human as more than nature and other than machine no longer holds.
Agnieszka Kurant is an interdisciplinary artist concerned with how complex social, economic, and cultural systems can confuse distinctions between fiction and reality, or nature and culture. Her work for ToftH will address the human body as a multitude of coexisting life forms, and human intelligence as a collective phenomenon, through a project involving the hand-held digital “pets” known as Tamagotchi.
Rob Reynolds, a painter and conceptual artist, is working on a project that considers the formation of icebergs in the era of global warming as the most important and far-reaching philosophical and poetic event of our time. His work explores how icebergs are now undermining the concept of the human that these exemplars of the sublime once stabilized, in the Romantic era, while translating human action into the language of geochemistry.
Martine Syms, a conceptual video artist, is planning a series of works that examine what it could mean to translate Blackness—or being Black—into a set of data points and pixels, in an effort to reclaim Blackness at a time when facial recognition technologies have the power to worsen racial bias and discrimination.
Anicka Yi is a South Korean-born, New York-based conceptual artist whose widely exhibited and praised work often draws from her collaborations with biologists and chemists. At ToftH, she will be advancing her poetic experiments by producing robots that are endowed with a microbiome, release plant-based molecules, and navigate their environment by smell and/or hearing.
About the Berggruen Institute
The Berggruen Institute’s mission is to develop foundational ideas and shape political, economic, and social institutions for the 21st century. Providing critical analysis using an outwardly expansive and purposeful network, we bring together some of the best minds and most authoritative voices from across cultural and political boundaries to explore fundamental questions of our time. Our objective is enduring impact on the progress and direction of societies around the world. To date, projects inaugurated at the Berggruen Institute have helped develop a youth jobs plan for Europe, fostered a more open and constructive dialogue between Chinese leadership and the West, strengthened the ballot initiative process in California, and, included the creation of The WorldPost, a global media platform that brings thought leaders from around the world to share ideas. In addition, the Berggruen Prize, a $1 million award is conferred annually by an independent jury to a thinker whose ideas are shaping human self-understanding to advance humankind.
The Transformations of the Human (ToftH)
The Transformations of the Human program is designed as a philosophical study and artistic exploration of the manifold ways in which artificial intelligence and biotechnology challenge our established conceptions of what it means to be human. By placing philosophers and artists in key research sites to foster dialogue with technologists, the aim of the program is to render AI and Biotech visible as unusually potent experimental sites for reformulating our vocabulary for thinking about ourselves. The Transformations of the Human program ambition is to feed our findings back into the production of both artificial intelligence and Biotech and to thereby contribute to both human and non-human flourishing. Among the initiatives that the Berggruen Institute has undertaken to date through ToftH is support for publication of the catalogue of the exhibition Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.
The Founding Director of ToftH, Tobias Rees, also serves as Reid Hoffman Professor of Humanities at the New School for Social Research and is a Fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. In addition to having written numerous articles and lectures, he is the author of the books Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary (2008), Plastic Reason (2016), and After Ethnos (2018).