Professor Peter Weibel, Chairman and CEO of ZKM | Zentrum für Kunst und Medien (Centre for Art and Media) Karlsruhe
THE ARTS+ is about combining art with new technologies – but, above all, it is about people. We team up with artists, curators, start-ups, museums and tech companies and the creative minds behind them. Now, we would like to introduce these innovators on our blog.
Today, we talked to Professor Peter Weibel, Chairman and CEO of ZKM, and got such a fascinating interview about the development of the arts, the “manifest” of a robot and the digital revolution.
Mr Weibel, you once said that art has prophetic powers. What can art predict today, in times of artificial and virtual intelligence?
Peter Weibel: For thousands of years, humanity lived in fears, terrorised by wild animals, poisonous plants, astrophysical and climatic catastrophes, and much more. Very slowly, humans developed tools to liberate themselves from these natural environmental circumstances. The first tool was the hand – the tool made possible by humans walking upright. With the hand, humans created new tools such as spears, arrows and hammers. As toolmakers, they were able to make fire themselves for the first time. This allowed them to turn night into day, locally and partially at least, and to use the heat of the fire to warm themselves in cold weather and discover new foods.
Over the course of millennia, cultures and civilizations arose on the basis of this tool production, becoming increasingly technological and artificial. Yet, in creating these artificial fabrications and products, the laws of nature were not violated, as one might assume at first glance; rather, they were discovered and utilised. In other words, technology is man-made and man-controlled nature.
The industrial and post-industrial revolution brought us the machine and media revolution. The phrase “machinery, materials and men” (1930) by the great architect of modernity, Frank Lloyd Wright, applies to the industrial revolution, while my phrase “media, data and men” (2011) applies to the media revolution. Robots are still machines, but with the help of media and data they are capable of more than machines. They can display lifelike features and behaviours. That is why McLuhan is right in considering media an extension of human organs and functions. Sensors are externalized organs. They alert us to changes in the conditions of our environment. The things in our environment are becoming populated increasingly by mini-sensors, which are beginning to communicate with each other via the Internet. This information about changes in our environment means more input for people, making it easier to make decisions – for example, driving directions via satellite or GPS provide more accurate information about road conditions than the naked human eye. In short, we are living increasingly in an artificial environment enhanced with countless sensors, which influence – and, as the case may be, even control – our decisions. These sensor-assisted environments increasingly resemble a simulation of lifelike organisms and can, at the end of the day, replace natural intelligence with artificial intelligence, at least in part. Art has already devoted itself to giving artistic shape to these artificial environments, namely through app art forms and augmented and virtual reality. This reveals a crucial step in civilization: People used to assign names to things, and then assign them images. Yet the words, images used to describe the objects could not be transformed back into these objects. Today, data form a universal code based on binary numbers. All texts, images and sounds can be transformed into data, transmitted as data and emitted as data. Today, in the age of 3D printing, data can be turned (back) into not just images, texts and sounds, but even into objects. That opens a gigantic gate of opportunity for us. If the world can be transformed into a numerical language then we have to take the concept of number space seriously. To date, we’ve written numbers, letters and notes on two-dimensional paper. All culture has a purely two-dimensional system of notation. Now we are getting closer to having multidimensional number spaces and consequently also multidimensional notation spaces. A single character in space will be able to symbolise every letter in the world through its position in space. An instrument will be able to emit every sound in the world through its position in space. Leibniz, who reduced the relationship of all the numbers in the world to two digits, marks the beginning of three-dimensional notation, which forms the new horizon of the future of the arts.
You were one of the very first representatives of media art and had an important influence on the genre in the late 1970s. Which artists/artworks that grapple with contemporary media and media services do you find exciting today – and why?
Peter Weibel: I did in fact play a significant part in founding media art in the mid-1960s through the use of tape recorders, film and photo cameras, typewriters and, beginning in 1969, through video machines and theoretical work on the computer. Most successful contemporary media artwork imitates film. I love media pieces that work with the respective intrinsic and specific characteristics of the media used. In other words, I love pieces that are media specific. What makes something innovative is when it shows me something I didn’t know yet about an appliance, machine, device or medium – or when it makes me aware of a cooperation or correlation I didn’t know about. After all, media don’t just redefine the relationship of our senses to our environment as extensions of our sensory organs; they also define the relationship between our sensory organs. That’s why I’m interested in the new interactions between the senses made possible exclusively by these media. I’m interested in the tongue as a visual organ because the surface of the tongue has a high resolution. As a result, the tongue can transmit video signals with the quality of a bad black-and-white television set from the 1960s, allowing a blind person to “see” with his or her tongue. The neuroplasticity of the brain makes me hopeful that someday every case of the brain will be able to take over the functions of another area in the event that it is damaged. If I externalise these features, I can say that in the future every instrument will be able to produce the sound of any other instrument, every object the sound of any other object. This “digital synaesthesia”, as I call it, is not a subjective experience but one based on scientific facts.
Together with Robotlab, ZKM is presenting the project “manifest”, in which a robot, autonomously creates and writes manifestos. What kind of messages should an artistic manifesto convey today?
Peter Weibel: I’ve already collaborated with Robotlab several times. The three members of the group have tremendous artistic skills. That makes them an ideal partner for collaboration. My first request to the group was to put an end to the nonsense of people writing manifestos about robot art. Good robots should be able to write about their ability to produce art themselves. So the group programmed a robot that constantly and autonomously writes manifestos on robot art with the help of a database of art manifestos and a generative grammar. When the manifesto is done, the robot arm grabs the paper, tosses it onto the floor and starts writing a new manifesto. In other words, the robot writes an endless number of manifestos on robot art. Since there is currently so much debate about machine ethics, my next suggestion was to make the robot write its own manifesto on machine ethics. I was following Isaac Asimov’s idea from the 1950 book “I, Robot”, in which he lays out three ethical rules made by humans but thought for robots. Because it’s true that what we desperately need is a new ethics for the digital age. We won’t be able to achieve this ethics without the help of artificial intelligence, neural networks and machines anymore. So this is what my mission looks like: For decades already, we have machines that support us when we make music for people in concert halls. In the second phase, now – think of certain music videos, like Chris Cunningham’s for Björk – robots at the stage will make music for people in a ballroom. The Robotlab used a robot which played with several record relations to produce music like a DJ. In the future, people will make music on stage and the robots in the auditorium will applaud. As you know, in the 21st century, we are moving from the Gutenberg Galaxy into the Turing Universe, from alphabet culture to data culture. This disruptive digital revolution is producing not only an Industry 4.0, but also a Culture 4.0. It is fundamentally changing economics, politics and art. That’s why I think it’s extremely admirable and thoughtful that a gate to the Turing Universe is being opened at the heart of the Gutenberg Galaxy – namely, at the Book Fair. ZKM definitely wants to support such a ground-breaking project.
Last year, with THE ARTS+, the Frankfurter Buchmesse launched a business festival that explores the intersections between art, digitalisation, media, economics and politics and looks for new business models. ZKM, the Centre for Art and Media, is a unique cultural institution that combines museum and collections, exhibitions and events, research and production. What makes a festival like THE ARTS+ interesting for ZKM? In your opinion, what opportunities does a festival like THE ARTS+ hold?
Peter Weibel: The opportunities lie in the expertise of the event organisers and participants. They have to make it clear that it isn’t difficult to predict the future, as politicians always claim. It’s actually easy to predict the future, if you create it yourself.
Thank you very much for your time, Mr Weibel!