June 12, 2019

UCI computer scientists bring tech-powered installations to the Venice Biennale

By Ellen Daniel

Computer scientists from the University of California have brought technology to one of the oldest art festivals in the world with an interactive artwork collaboration.

Venice Biennale takes place from May until November, showcasing the best works from the world of contemporary visual art. Participating countries (90 this year) select the artists to represent them and exhibit their work in national pavilions at the Giardini and other locations throughout Venice.

This year, several artists have utilised technology to convey themes such as climate change and migration.

Unfinished Conversations on the Weight of Absence

In collaboration with Israeli-Romanian artist Belu-Simion Fainaru, researchers have created three art installations for the event on display at the Romanian Pavilion in the Giardini della Biennale, the Romanian Institute of Culture and Humanistic Research in Venice.

Named “Unfinished Conversations on the Weight of Absence”, the collection of three pieces combine computer-generated imagery and speech, using artificial intelligence to create an interactive experience for the viewer that is “thought-provoking and emotionally involving”.

The first piece, “Talking Head” allows visitors to interact with paintings of the 20th-century Jewish-Romanian poet Paul Celan and Romanian communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu, with chatbots allowing conversations between viewers and the avatars.

“Interacting with these works puts the viewer off balance, creating an opportunity and space for considering these characters in a new light,” explained Alexandru Nicolau, UCI professor and chair of computer science. “Participants will see Celan in the context of the greater body of work of Fainaru and the Holocaust experience, and they’ll view Ceausescu from the perspective of the 30 years that have elapsed since his death and in the context of contemporary events.”

The second installation is named “Talking Plant”, which allows visitors to interact with a potted plant through touch and voice. The plant recites poetry by Celan or, if the plant considers the advances from the viewer to be inappropriate, requests that the human stop.

“‘Talking Plant’ is a mirror of ourselves and how we long to interact with others,” said Michael Demirev, a UCI graduate student in computer science . “But it’s also a reminder of the consequences of treating living beings like objects.”

This is the second artistic collaboration with Fainaru for UCI researchers after a collaboration in 2018 at the Poznan Biennale in Poland. The overarching theme of the biennale installations is the shared experiences and memories of the Holocaust and life under communist rule in postwar Europe.

“Our work explores the frontier between technology and art,” said Neftali Watkinson, a UCI doctoral student in computer science. “By bringing artificial intelligence to an unorthodox setting, we attempt to show that it is nothing to be afraid of and that it can be quite beautiful.”

The current works will be on display in Venice until the closing of the biennale on November 24.

Read more: We Live in an Ocean of Air: How VR art is capturing the hearts and minds of audiences.

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