Artists Mine Data and the Mostly Chilling Implications of AI in 'Uncanny Valley'

An image from Forensic Architecture's analysis of Triple-Chaser tear-gas grenade canisters.  (Forensic Architecture/Praxis Films)

The appearance of one’s doppelgänger usually presages disaster. Today, a shadow version of oneself exists constantly alongside our flesh-and-bone selves, for the most part concealed under the surface of our smartphones, in the ebb and flow of data behind our screens. These “statistical alter egos,” as de Young contemporary art curator Claudia Schmuckli calls them, are part of the modern condition—at least for anyone who engages with the networked world.

Instead of shying away from this uncomfortable truth, the artists of Uncanny Valley, Schmuckli’s first group exhibition at the de Young, meet these doppelgängers head on, mining and manipulating that data to confront audiences with their digital lives, and the real-world implications of all that information.

Uncanny Valley is billed as the “first major exhibition in the U.S. to explore the relationship between humans and intelligent machines through an artistic lens,” which sounds like it could be a show of unwieldy and intangible technology. It does, however, hew fairly close to the standard exhibition format, just with slightly more interactive features. Dealing in such nebulous, digital stuff, Uncanny Valley’s strongest moments turn those themes into room-sized installations, as happens in Zach Blas’ The Doors, Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Shadow Stalker and Christopher Kulendran Thomas’ Being Human.

Zach Blas, 'The Doors,' 2019, installation view in 'Uncanny Valley' at the de Young Museum, 2020. (Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

The exhibition opens with Blas’ green-tinged “mystical corporate garden,” organized around the sacred geometry of Metatron’s cube in a nod to the Bay Area’s past and present relationship to psychedelia. At the room’s center, a glass case displays readily available nootropics (so-called smart drugs), popular with a Silicon Valley set interested in optimizing everything, including their own minds. On hanging screens, video projections trained on various neural networks (Fillmore-esque posters, Jim Morrison’s poetry, lizard skin) create a frenetic ambiance, the textbook cacophony of a bad trip.

While Blas’ LSD-inspired “garden” asks questions like “Who gets to have a vision of the future today?” other projects supply an onslaught of unsettling information we didn’t necessarily know to ask after. Soliciting visitors’ email addresses, Hershman Leeson’s Shadow Stalker broadcasts what personal data can be gleaned from an internet search of that email, yielding current and former addresses, dates of birth, phone numbers and even, sometimes, credit scores. (Schmuckli assured me the museum isn’t keeping people’s email addresses on file, so at least there’s that.)

Lynn Hershman Leeson, still from 'Shadow Stalker,' 2019. (Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Hershman Leeson further implicates her audience (their physical and “digital” shadows become part of a projected map) by linking this invasive search to the reality of predictive policing, which uses data about past arrests to identify “high-risk areas” and determine heightened surveillance of those spaces. The feedback loop is dizzying.

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There are examples in Uncanny Valley of big data and AI being wielded for good (Forensic Architecture’s work to identify Triple-Chaser tear gas canisters in images from around the globe is one), but more often the show presents artworks that highlight the potential for abuse. See Trevor Paglen’s They Took the Faces from the Accused and the Dead ... (SD18), 3,240 silver gelatin prints bearing the faces of accused and incarcerated individuals—images once used (without the subjects’ permission) to train facial-recognition software. (Now such software just trains itself on our social media pics, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.)

Installation view of Trevor Paglen, 'They Took the Faces from the Accused and the Dead... (SD18),' 2019 in 'Uncanny Valley' at the de Young Museum, 2020. (Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

At times, the incorporation of technology into an artwork seems a bit arbitrary. In Simon Denny’s Amazon worker cage patent drawing as virtual King Island Brown Thornbill cage, visitors can use a QR code inside the powder-coated metal sculpture (an actual patent filed by Amazon, made by the artist into a real object) to activate on a supplied tablet the image of a small bird flitting about inside the cage. Conceptually, I get it: a species at risk, a harbinger of environmental collapse, a veritable “canary” in the coal mine. But in practical application, it’s one thing too many for the otherwise potent piece, and clunky to hold.

It’s far more chilling to imagine a human worker in this cage, steered by an automated system instead of their own will. Here too, we are implicated: As daily users of Amazon’s services, this design was created on our behalves, to better move Amazon employees through “active workspaces.” And while this specific cage was never pursued by the company, the patent doesn’t expire until 2033.

Installation view of Simon Denny, 'Amazon worker cage patent drawing as virtual King Island Brown Thornbill cage,' 2019 beside work by Agnieszka Kurant in 'Uncanny Valley' at the de Young Museum, 2020. (Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

In the middle space between open questions and answers to questions we didn’t know we had, Kulendran Thomas’ Being Human, made in collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann, ties together the philosophy of humanism, the history of civil conflict in Sri Lanka, the international art market, deepfakes and even an AI-generated pop song.

The 25-minute video plays in an elegantly arranged installation that blinks back and forth between projected image and a white-wall presentation of contemporary Sri Lankan art. Our guide within the video mulls over the concept of human rights, and its ties to Western imperialism—an especially pressing consideration for those who exist outside a recognized nation state. Then an uncanny deepfake of the Colombian artist Oscar Murillo says what might be exhibition’s greatest takeaway: “Invariably this space of theoretical equality is actually mediated by unequal powers.” (He’s talking about the art market, but the same applies to our Brave New Digital World.)

There is great power in the digital self: to communicate across borders, to make old gatekeepers irrelevant, to absorb and disseminate information that wants—demands—to be free. But that power is also being harnessed by those who would use it to sell us things, predict our behavior and arrest us for simply existing within a map’s red square.

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'Uncanny Valley' is on view at the de Young Museum in San Francisco through Oct. 25, 2020. Details here.