If you’re concerned about where the future of artificial intelligence is heading, you might not want to read any further. We caught up with artist Tony Oursler to discuss this issue, and in his opinion, the future may not be so bright. Graduating from CalArts in 1979, where he studied under John Baldessari, Oursler has been a pioneer in new media art since the 1980s. His interdisciplinary approach to art, which involves elements of painting, sculpture, video, installation, and music, typically leaves the viewer immersed in a surreal environment imbued with deep cultural meaning. That’s certainly the case with his latest site-specific artwork, Tear of The Cloud, on view now at Riverside Park in New York City. For this piece, Oursler collaborated with Public Art Fund to dramatically transform the landmarked 69th Street Transfer Bridge Gantry, surrounding landscape, and the Hudson River through superimposed digital projections and an eerie soundscape. The work is only up until Halloween—which is a fitting last night for the exhibition given its supernatural aura—so be sure to see it soon! Tear of the Cloud, like many of Oursler’s other works, alludes to the technological past, while posing questions about its future. Here, Oursler reveals what went into the large-scale public work, his views on A.I., and the dark side of technological progress.
Tear of the Cloud references a lot of new technology—like social media bots, artificial intelligence, facial recognition technologies, and more. Can you unpack the specific ways these subjects surface in the work? What dialogue do you hope these ideas spark among viewers?
It’s a love story to the Hudson River region in a lot of ways. It’s a visual analog to the Hudson River School, a kind of update of landscape painting gone digital. I wanted it to read on a visual level so people could go there and just take it in directly and take authorship of the moment. If they want to ignore the things that connect to anything in reality that’s fine, but I’ve always been interested in actual cultural events in my work and viewers can find the links if they want.
Artificial intelligence and its antecedents are one of the main strands of the work, Tear of the Cloud. When you look at the history of the computer, it starts with this manual labor force, where women were used as mathematicians to calculate. The women called themselves computers, which I really love. So these code girls, as they are known, were the first physical computers in a way. That was followed by the punch card, which was invented by one of the founders of IBM here in New York, and that was the first program memory offload of the computer. Later on, IBM developed Deep Blue, which was the first artificial intelligence to defeat a grandmaster, Garry Kasparov, at chess in 1997. (Another "grandmaster" appears in the work too: rapper Grandmaster Flash.) So in Tear of the Cloud, I personify that moment in the projection of the knight, which was the chess piece that destabilized Kasparov in his eventual defeat. I wrote a script for the horse/knight to poetically explore the notion of artificial intelligence and that battle, which plays as audio in the installation.
Also, across the Hudson River over in Bell Labs, was the development of the transistor, which really made computing possible. A 3D model depicting the first transistor appears in Tear of the Cloud. We went over to Bell Labs to make the model—which they were gracious enough to let us do. The transistor basically enables a signal to be controlled on a very small scale, so it’s a gate to construct an on or off signal, which is the essence of digitizing a computer. The first transistor was about two-and-a-half inches high and now we have something like a billion of them inside the iPhone—they really enabled this incredible revolution. In this work the dynamics of the transistor become the drama that I relate to the silent movie character and proto-feminist Pearl White, whose "cliffhanger" scenes were filmed on the New Jersey Palisades on the western bank of the Hudson River. So that’s the way the flow of the work went; it cross-references these inventions and cultural activities along the banks of the Hudson.
Regarding the dialogue I hope to spark among viewers with Tear of the Cloud and technology, there are philosophical questions I want people to think about—like, how much time do I spend using technology? Profoundly, is it taking energy away from my life, or giving me energy? Or am I a puppet for larger forces in various ways? But the other question is, do we really even understand the technology that we use? I worked closely with Daniel S. Palmer, the wonderful curator at the Public Art Fund, developing a glossary to go along with the piece so that people could go in and read snippets about these technological references.
This isn’t the first time you’ve worked with Public Art Fund to project video art in an outdoor space. In 2000, your exhibition The Influence Machine projected large-scale faces, with corresponding narratives, onto smoke, trees, and buildings to examine the technological history of telecommunication from the telegraph to the internet. How did The Influence Machine inform Tear of the Cloud? Was your artistic process similar at all, despite the shows happening 18 years apart?
Back in the late ‘90s leading up to 2000, I was very curious about early mimetic technologies: technologies that mimic our senses, whether it’s sound recording, visual projection, or image projection, and automatons. As a multi-media artist, I realized that there’s a deep history of sculpture or painting, but as soon as things start to be kinetic or have moving images, there’s a sharp fall-off in our knowledge of how it may fit into art or cultural history—and I thought maybe there’s a shadow history there. I started researching for a number of years about this shadow history, and I developed a timeline showing that there were antecedents to projection before film, with the phantasmagoria or the camera obscura. The Influence Machine came out of that research.
With The Influence Machine I was projecting on smoke, on trees, and on buildings. It was a big deal for me in my career at that time because it allowed me to get out into public space in a major way. It’s always interesting to get work to people who can stumble upon it and have that kind of surprise moment—it’s not in the hallowed halls of a gallery or museum. I’ve always liked that edge of art when it’s possible, that was one of the reasons I was attracted to video and music and the internet, pop mediums in general. And to do it with moving images in a cityscape was a really fantastic leap for me that I could never have done without the Public Art Fund.
Since The Influence Machine, 18 years later, there are a few new technologies that came into play. Firstly, the projectors are much brighter. Because of the sheer brightness of the projections, we’re able to project directly onto the Hudson River—or into it, creating this gem-like effect illuminating the surface of the Hudson. The river’s got a lot of particulate matter in it, an atomization of everything in the region mixing together. It’s a brackish mix, so it has seawater and silt that picks up the image and extends it below the surface, giving it this 3D glowing quality. I don’t think we would have been able to do that on the same scale even ten years ago.
Secondly, the projection mapping technology is better; it has the ability to paint a surface in a very accurate way. Simply put, you can combine various layers live and construct an image, and shape it directly to the surface, and that’s all brand-new. The Influence Machine—which is still in play, it was just done fairly recently in the UK and in Sweden—is very freeform. There are people holding the projectors and smoke machines. I worked with the crew on the performative nature of it, while Tear of the Cloud was all done in advance. I worked with [event staging company] World Stage and they had a great crew. We were able to load all of the footage in, scale it and shape it, and then put it in specific places, under the West Side Highway or along a particular surface of the gantry. So, that was a big difference. I didn’t really think about how new the process was until it was over.
From exploring people’s relationship to TV in the ‘90s to our obsession with social media now, an enduring theme in your work has been analyzing our constant relationship with pervasive technology. How have you seen this relationship transform overtime?
I've always made art relating to how people register technology in their personal lives. As it's developed, new technology is pretty much introduced before the old one it's replacing is fully understood. I’ve been using new technology for so long that it’s now old technology—really old. When I went to CalArts at 19 or 20 years old, I had never been able to record or shoot any video; it never even crossed my mind to do it. The camera that the film department gave to the art department was already 10 years old at that time. It was from 1967, and I started playing around with it in ‘76 or ‘77. The thing was so beat up, but what was cool was that it was the very first portable video camera—the Portapak by Sony. It was a reel-to-reel, black and white video recorder. I fell in love with it—I could connect my interest in painting and sculpture with the moving image, sound, and performance. A lot came together for me, and I’ve been playing with the mix ever since. But over the years, there are kind of strange detours that accompany working with technology. I was talking to Constance DeJong, one of my longtime collaborators, about how a piece we did together, Fantastic Prayers produced with Dia, came out as a CD-ROM, which is now obsolete. It’s crushing because I can see all of my old videotapes from the ‘70s, but it’s near impossible for me to see the CD-ROM that we made in the early aughts.
Now, what we have in our pockets, or what we can hold in our hands, is much greater technology than what was used to put somebody on the moon. It seemed like people would have cut off their left hand to get ahold of certain technology that’s now ubiquitous. There was an optimism for a long time, beginning with when cable television, and a proliferation of new channels, made it so the big three TV stations (ABC, NBC, and CBS) no longer had a monopoly over viewership. Then, the birth of the internet was supposed to be this utopian ability to get information, to produce, and to share amongst people. Now that it’s come about, it’s almost like there’s a fatigue. It really didn’t have the result that people thought it would. But I’m very curious about big data. If you can get past the dark side of surveillance—the fact that there is no privacy anymore, and that we live in a glass bubble—I have a feeling that we’re going to learn so much in the next few years about human nature that we didn’t know before.
That’s something you also investigate in many of your works—what it means to be human. Do you think the core of human identity has changed at all with the evolution of technology?
Yes, I think it has. One thing I have noticed is that by being so-called “connected,” the aspirational aspect of new technology—or the level of advertising and fantasy space put into aspirational capitalism—has had a really dark effect on people. In other words, everybody expects to win the lottery or have a certain amount of luxury goods that is ever expanding. There’s a gluttonous quality to the endless stream of information that we have—it’s kind of an amplification of the seven deadly sins. It could be some of the underlying reasons that we have rampant drug abuse and violence, which seems to have increased in society over the years. One can’t help to think that there is a connection, just to put a dark spin on it.
It’s interesting to hear you put a dark spin on it, because your art tends to pose questions about artificial intelligence, without taking a strong stance on the matter. Are you personally optimistic or pessimistic about the future of A.I.?
When I make artwork I try to nudge in one direction or another, but I’m much more interested in activating a collaborative relationship with audiences. I try not to come down on them by telling them what to think. That’s not the way I want to make art; I just don’t think it’s the place of my artwork to say certain things are right or wrong. That said, in terms of artificial intelligence, I’m convinced that it will be a very dark chapter in humanity eventually. It needs to be watched very carefully. As problematic as Elon Musk might be, I have followed his A.I. tract, and I mostly agree with it. We have to keep a close eye on it.
Have you seen the video of Jordan Peele pretending to be Barack Obama giving a speech using A.I.? It’s pretty frightening.
No I haven’t, but Jordan Peele is a genius. It’s funny you bring that up, because look at the veracity of early technologies, like photography: it was meant to have this documentary quality to it, it was supposed to be a believable image. But right from the beginning, photography was used to manipulate images. War photographers would often stage the bodies after the battle, composing all sorts of things for pictures. So factual format has often been subverted, and I think we’re going into a new chapter of that—where these voices can be transposed and images can be manipulated. It’s going to be mind-boggling. People will have to be trained to question pretty much anything that’s presented as factual; it's opening up a perpetual paranoiac perception. Also, if media outlets like The New York Times get starved to the point where they can’t get reporters on the scene, we’re in big trouble. We’re already in big trouble. Now, people are getting their news from artificial intelligence, from bots, from people who are manipulating these flows on YouTube. Look at the election: sci-fi is now mainstream. In Tear of the Cloud, I'm highlighting the links between conspiracies like #pizzagate, Sybil's Cave, Mary Rodgers, and Poe.
A lot of your art makes me think of the British TV show Black Mirror. Are there any science-fiction films or books that have largely influenced your work?
My son turned me onto Black Mirror and I love it. It reminds me of something that I grew up with called The Twilight Zone, which was kind of an existential, intellectual show—and I love that the tradition of that has continued there. But my favorite sci-fi writer has got to be Philip K. Dick. Dick was a wonderful visionary. He had a great sense of humor and attention to the working-class hero, which I love so much because my dad worked at Reader’s Digest for many years, so he was very much into the blue-collar narrative. Philip K. Dick, time and again, was very entertainingly provocative in terms of reading the future. The transparency of the projections along the hudson does have a si-fi quality...
In the early ‘80s you first started working with projection to create an immersive image, which led to your work “getting outside of the box” in the '90s. Is there any new technology that’s inspired you to explore projecting the moving image into an entirely different space?
Yes, CRISPR technology, which is the first chance to alter our genome. In the past, there were genetic mutations, but they weren’t necessarily carried on in our DNA. Now, through the brand-new technology CRISPR, we’re able to alter quite precisely (we hope) our DNA, and thus in the DNA in successive generations. That's a milestone in human history. Seth Shipman, a scientist up in Massachusetts, encoded the first video into DNA. Shipman’s interest is in making molecular recorders. He wants to be able to record information from other cells and play it back to understand changes in cells on a molecular level. He’s not so interested in storing video on DNA, but that was one of the things he did to display his technology. Shipman took Eadward Muybridge’s running horse—the moving image that sparked the film industry in America—and encoded it into DNA with CRISPR. That running horse is a metaphor in Tear of the Cloud, whether it’s the Knight piece in the Deep Blue chess match, or the headless horseman, or Shipman’s first encoding through CRISPR.
Currently, Seth Shipman and I are collaborating to encode a video piece I created into bacteria from the Hudson River at Hook Mountain. I sent him samples that I collected around Manhattan, we isolated the DNA, and we’re going to encode my 10-frame moving image into it. I thought for a long time about what this image would be—what perspective would I take? It seemed to take the position of a meta-message of my project and that was daunting. With Tear of the Cloud, there are many dark elements (misuse of technology, colonialism, pollution), but I tried to focus on creative instinct in New York City, and the Hudson Valley in general, to show just how generative and progressive the region has been socially, culturally, and technologically over time. So I thought that creative impulse was the way to go with the CRISPR project. I came up with this idea of a motion, almost like a dance move. It’s a character that jumps up, reaches up, falls down, gets back up, stands, and then leaps again grasping. It’s my 10-frame answer to the horse; it’s a symbol for creativity. Any artist, or creative, will tell you that’s how it goes—you always have to leap for something—and when you don’t get it and you fall, you have to try it one more time and then you may get it. You have to keep leaping.