Please Don't Understand This

Please Don't Understand This

UKAI Projects · Local Disturbances - Shorts #23 - Please Don't Understand This


Language is a writhing, squirming thing. As soon as we pin it down somewhere, it wriggles free somewhere else and new forms and modes emerge. Slang is an obvious example, but the ways in which languages evolve and mutate are numerous. Hegemonic language is a means by which certain ideas become fixed in culture, and new forms of language become means of contesting these ideas either directly or indirectly.

In the early 20th century, migrant workers created their own code, which they would mark on infrastructure such as fences or bridges that would communicate opportunities and risks of a particular place. What are the modern equivalents

Western ideas of rationality often dominate in conversations about critical issues, and AI is no different. Whether debating the technical nature of AI or its ethics, the default is a mode of Western rationalism that tacitly holds that a logical structure underpins reality and that rules or laws are the sole approach to making meaning

Curious about the kinds of symbols and visual languages that might emerge in response to algorithmic culture, I commissioned organizers in Beijing, Dzaleka, and Cairo to source and prepare community artists to generate their own responses.

The production process looked as follows:

Site Selection: Locations were selected based on 1) proximity to issues centered in AI ethics discourse within Western ideological debates and 2) relationships to local partners willing to disintermediate the commissioning body (myself), and 3) willingness to design and deliver the ‘residency’ in a way that felt locally relevant and appropriate. There were several false starts and shifts in this stage. An opportunity to deliver in Palestine was abandoned. A partner in Germany disappeared.

Residency Delivery: A consistent amount of money (around $5,000 CAD/site) was wired to each location for distribution to artists in a way deemed appropriate to that location. Residencies were delivered in each location. The primary obstacles in this phase were 1) difficulties in wiring money to certain locations due to enhanced restrictions and 2) concerns on the side of local partners that they would be delivering works on a “wrong” understanding of AI. A local challenge arose in Dzaleka as the artistic works were painted, and finding a high-quality scanner proved difficult and time-consuming for the organizers.

Diasporic Responses: An open invitation was made to creators to join in a workshop led by Monika Bielskyte in Toronto, Canada or online and then to provide their own response to the works created in the three non-Canadian sites. A small honorarium was offered ($150) for each submission. We asked for creators that identified as part of the broader diaspora connected to the initial sites of creation. Eleven responses were received in this way.

Physical Production: Artist and designer Nour Bishouty took on the task of translating the created works and accompanying texts into a print format appropriate to its content. We will be physically manufacturing copies early in 2023 using only mass-produced stationary, including paper, binding, stickers, and so on, appropriate to the regions of production. Moreover, each print edition will be hand assembled through improvised assembly practices. Both the buyers and the Toronto-based creators will be invited to take part in this manufacturing process. A meal will be shared as a component of this stage.

We learned a lot through this process. We had certain assumptions about the types of issues that would appear in created works. We assumed surveillance would be front of mind in Dzaleka. This was incorrect. Themes of alien abduction repeated across regions. The imaginary on which symbolic systems drew were clearly different, and interpretation was difficult or impossible in the absence of explanation.

The desire to impose order on language and ideas is the same instinct that pushes us to impose order on the landscape or on our neighbours. Rigidity in how AI is used or understood will limit the pathways available for us to explore and amplify the faults in the monological system we adopt.

We intentionally set out to commission responses that I would be unable to interpret. While we enjoyed the works, it was only through discussion with artists and others familiar with the cultures expressed in the work that deeper meaning became evident. The urge to understand is strong. We desperately wanted the symbols and images translated into a familiar epistemology but resistance to the urge was a central aspect of the project. Please don’t understand this.

Locations and Timing

Tumaini Festival / November 4 – 6, 2021

Tumaini Festival was founded in 2014 and it has been developed and delivered by refugees and Malawians. The intention of the festival is to, “promote intercultural harmony, mutual understanding, and peaceful co-existence.” The festival is the first large-scale cultural event within a refugee camp, created and run by refugees in collaboration with the host community.

Tumaini Festival has represented a unique opportunity for refugees to share aspects of their lives with interested visitors, to exhibit and sell their crafts, and to feel the hope of connecting to a wider community.

During the festival, a space was set aside where visitors could come and engage with the three selected artists as they worked and discuss issues of surveillance, automation, and so on. Artists were curated and the brief delivered by the festival organizers.

Beijing community hutong / December 2021 + January 2022

Participation in the Beijing component was solicited through relationships with neighbours and local businesses within an extended hutong, narrow streets or alleys typical of northern Chinese cities, particularly Beijing. The participating artists shared a common geography and membership in a local subculture organized around club events, tattoo art, and visual design.

The artists curated and the brief delivered by a Chinese artist who had previously lived in Canada for 12 years.

Cairo, Egypt design community / February – March 2022

Cairo participants were found through a local call by a design studio that hosts public events related to art, technology, and speculative futures. The process was a structured one, developed by the local lead. Two online workshops were delivered to provide a grounding in AI art. Several documents were shared that explored artificial intelligence and other technological trends through the lends of the Arabic world. Participants then had several weeks to create their works and add them to a shared folder.

Toronto, UKAI projects / June 16, 2022

A workshop, Designing Fictions for Real Futures, was hosted by UKAI Projects with 13 in-person participants and 12 online participants. Speaker Monika Bielskyte offered a talk on imagining better futures. Participants were then invited to explore the works created in Cairo, Beijing, and Dzaleka. Reproductions were printed in service to this, while videos and other digital elements were projected on a wall. A link was also provided for participants to see the digital files after the event.

As a futurist and futures designer, Monika consults on and prototypes culturally expansive, socially and environmentally engaged future world designs for the media industry, technology companies, and cities/countries.

UKAI Projects is a Toronto-based arts organization that explores how different values can show up in emerging technologies and sociotechnical systems.

Eleven submissions were received. Respondents did not have access to accompanying texts or other metadata about the images to which they responded. The invitation requested responses from those identifying as part of Chinese, Arabic, and/or Central African diasporas, though this ended up being true for only seven of the eleven received.

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.