My artistic practice focuses on humans’ relation to the technology they create and which surrounds them. Thereby, for me, the question of living and non-living entities is related to technological means in the present and potential near futures. Within the AI-technology discourse, the question arises: When can artificial intelligence be considered independently intelligent? I would even like to think one step further and question from which point on something is alive. This includes humans, animals, plants and machines.
For an exhibition in the April of 2021 at the Ausstellungsraum Klingental in Basel, I developed video works that speculate if there could be life forming independently from human interference within the depth of the internet. Old fragments of data baked together and formed something with a consciousness, like molecules being heat-transformed into something “alive” billions of years ago by the activity of deep-sea volcanoes.
Based on this project I wanted to continue working with this idea of new life during my “Home Not Alone” project via Pro Helvetia Shanghai. For my time spent between Berlin and Basel, I switched the perspective and asked myself: How do machines come into play when enabling or maintaining human life? We encounter smart wear appliances monitoring us for optimization or machines for breathing during a pandemic. My starting point was the start-up culture in Berlin, where many young entrepreneurs are working within the topic of fertility with the aim to give people more control over their reproduction via technology.
I started my research in Berlin by looking at a variety of tech companies within the fertility sector to see how they present machines and algorithms aesthetically on their websites. It was striking that the general imagery completely ignored machines, but focussed on depictions of happy families and babies. Everything was meant to look easy, natural, approachable and family-friendly. No cooling tanks, no IUI equipment, maybe a microscope in the background, if at all.
I then started to meet up with people from fertility clinics and tech start-ups and was fascinated to discover that there was general enthusiasm for technology and its opportunities. At the same time, it became clear that the machines and algorithms used were not specifically talked about. The main focus was on families, bodies and a variety of fertility symbols like different plants or animals. These forms of allegoric representation started to interest me and I came across the fertility fountain by Hugo Lederer at Prenzlauer Berg’s Arnswalder Platz. Lederer positioned figures associated with fertility like a mother or a fisher around gigantic bulls adorned with signs and symbols of potency and virility. The entire arrangement was so massive and captivating, that I started to become obsessed with this fountain and visited it regularly.
In my final week in Berlin I decided to scan the fertility fountain. The gigantic structure was way too big to capture with the iPad 3D scan software. So I had to take around 300 pictures of the fountain from all possible angles to use a Photogrammetry software to generate a 3D Model with texture. While I was doing that, there were many people having lunch at the surrounding park and kids playing on top of the fountain. I was like an alien inspector measuring and cataloging this 18 tons stone fountain. The process was so frustrating and bizarre that I started emailing people from the Berlin city government if there are any models from the fountain in a public collection. None of them replied. So I went back to the fountain and took more detailed scans and even more photos and ended up with a glitched but strangely beautiful 3D model of the fountain, which became the main character in my video “Surveilling the Guardians of Fertility” from 2021.
I think the digital residency format is an interesting opportunity to focus on the thinking and working process that one is already engaged with. The obvious shortcoming of this form of residency is, of course, the limitation of new inputs which a “regular” residency would provide by exposing one to a new place and environment. Therefore, it is all about expectation. My original plan was to go to China to see how the country and its digital landscape changed in the last 10 years. This was clearly not ideal for a digital residency setting. But by changing my goals and finding little ways of improvising (like spending some time in Berlin), I was able to make the most out of the time and resources given.
To make full use of the digital residency, the best thing to do is focus on the opportunities it offers. It is something very different from a residency for which you physically travel, and if one tries to think of the digital residency in the terms of the traveling residency, it will most likely be disappointing. It might be good to make a list of things to do/read/see in your regular environment, which you usually don’t take the time for. Try to see your home as a place for new adventures. Also, it is a good idea to use the connections of an institution like Pro Helvetia to get in contact with people that are usually difficult to approach. The framework of a digital residency might open doors for you, that would otherwise remain closed.
(Banner image: Till Langschied, “Surveilling the Guardians of Fertility”, 2021, Videostill.)