AI Rituals

AI Rituals

UKAI Projects · Local Disturbances - Shorts #19 - AI Rituals

Thoughts on returning from Berlin

We got to go to Berlin in Fall of 2022 and sit on stage at the Hebbel am Ufer (HAU) in Berlin trying to convince audience members to join us in our elevated place and share their hopes and fears with a machine on a table. This was a part of STO Union’s larger takeover of the space which was itself a part of HAU’s Spy on Me Festival #4. Over 90 minutes we would get audience members to share their hopes and fears with a computer which would then project those feelings onto giant scrims for all to see. The responses also served as prompts for a language model which would generate its own hopes and fears, broadcast into the theatre, before being deleted so that the cycle could begin again.

We told the AI it would die. During testing, this at first generated hopes that involved bloody hands and dead enemies. Things softened eventually. On the last day, the AI mourned a dying planet and invited us to cry, if we cared to.

The AI was put together through UKAI Projects by Dan Tapper and refined by Willem Deisinger (who joined us on stage for two of the three days). We probably got around 100 people to talk to our AI and another 30 or 40 to write their responses on cards that we could add manually. Seven people found the stream of responses on the HAU4 website and added responses from there.

Some were quite keen to share their feelings and would return several times to ensure that their thoughts provided some contribution to each round of the AI’s development.

One young woman sat for quite a while before deciding that she could not participate. She was with some friends but came back alone a bit later to hurriedly hand me a card.

Sometimes she fears men, it turns out. Though her offering was erased with all the others when the AI spoke its final words, the answer lingers.

Some people told us how they disliked computers, or how their Siri did a better job of responding to their voice, or how kids spend too much time on phones these days. This was fine. They didn’t feel anything, or weren’t ready to feel anything, and besides, a computer on a table is much easier to dismiss than a painting, or a poem, or spray paint on a wall. Besides, I don’t like the smell of paint, and a book feels better than a tablet device, though my daughter doesn’t spend too much time with a canvas, so I have no complaints to offer about that.

Most felt something though, whether irritation, or hesitancy, or, in some cases, a kind of release.

Our piece was a small part of a near total occupation of the Hebbel Am Ufer (HAU1), the oldest standing theatre in Berlin. Our 90-minute cycles concluded with the AI’s last words and then we were rotated off (the stage rotated, what fun), and Nadia Ross and her live performance rotated in. Because of this, I never actually got to see the live performance that was the centrepiece of the whole thing. Perhaps she was making jokes about the table full of wires and laptops. This seems unlikely though. We were all dealing with death, and death makes space for others.

Some people held the microphone like a child and whispered their responses so even their friends couldn’t hear.

An older couple came in on Sunday and told us that they had lived in the neighbourhood for 20 years but not once had felt comfortable enough to enter the theatre.

Others shared with us the kind of AI art they liked. Often, this involved them pulling out their phones to show us pictures from their past experiences to make sure we understood.  These works often involved virtual worlds and barely functioning technologies, and speculative futures full of sexual freedom and bright colors and so many screens. I had never been on stage before and wanted to do a good job so I didn’t tell them that I preferred our little chunks of simple honesty.

On Sunday, a man hoped to be rich. His girlfriend feared dying alone. In fact, a different person on each day told the machine that they feared dying alone.

I feel enormous gratitude for being invited to play some small part in Out Loud. We were endlessly anxious about what our AI would say, what it would learn. We made no technological advances. We drank a lot of beer and laughed a lot late into the night after each performance. We pulled people out of the seats and onto the stage and gave them a way to be heard.

We are all carrying so much shit and grief right now. I lost a lot during COVID but what I lost doesn’t come close to what others lost so I shut my mouth and deal with it. I appreciated the space we gave for little embers of hope and lingering fears to come forward, to be projected on a screen, to be used to teach a machine and then to be erased and left in the theatre, which is where rituals ought to be born (and sometimes die).

One woman, well-dressed and well-spoken, even in her second language, told us the questions were too open and too vague. When I told her that the AI would die in just over an hour, she asked, “So, it learns from whoever is here then tries to answer these impossible questions, and then dies?” I told her yes, and she nodded and replied, “Well, I guess that’s it, isn’t it?”

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