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Culture Is Served: DocLab’s Caspar Sonnen Provides Food For Thought

AMSTERDAM — Under the banner of ‘The Humanoid Cookbook.’ this year’s DocLab is going back to the basics of human interaction.

In the Brakke Grond, a table and chair are set in front of a TV monitor. There’s a white tablecloth, a place setting and even a little bunch of decorative flowers. But the woman seated there isn’t tucking into a gourmet meal, she’s watching a short, interactive film that involves pressing a couple of buttons that are clearly labelled in front her. The idea is just one of the many ideas feeding into this year’s theme at DocLab, IDFA’s experimental wing: The Humanoid Cookbook.

“The title has several meanings,” explains Caspar Sonnen, IDFA’s Head of New Media, “and one of them is to explore new forms of exhibiting emerging media. The context of a cinema is not necessarily the best one for interactive work, but a museum context in many ways is also not much better either, because, even though museums do have lots of interactive stuff, the general cliché of the museum experience just means walking around and not touching anything, because it’s too expensive. And in that sense we thought, well, maybe it’s interesting to use the dinner table as a metaphor, because the dinner table tells you a few things already. When you go into a restaurant, it’s telling you that you can sit down. There’s a chair, there’s a table – it’s a nice way to tell you that you will be able to spend some time there. You’re not going away any time soon, which is what you do when you walk through the Apple store.”

“We want people to actually sit down and enjoy these experiences,” he continues. “I think the more access we have to films and media and so on, the less time we actually devote to them. For example, I browse through Spotify songs more than I’m listen to and experience an entire album. We know that’s a cliché almost in traditional media, but in emerging media it’s even more the case, because added to that there’s the whole awkwardness of the interaction: ‘What am I supposed to do here?’ ‘Should I touch this?’ ‘How long is this supposed to last – as long as I play with it?’ That’s why, after doing this for so many years, we saw that the dinner table could be an interesting thing to explore as a metaphor.”

The theme certainly has been taken to heart. A chalkboard tells of the day’s “specials”, while audio headsets are stored in takeaway food units, next to a chill cabinet where the VR experiences can be booked. But nowhere is the concept clearer than in Shirin Anlen’s installation piece “I’ve Always Been Jealous of Other People’s Families”. Here, four strangers can sit at a family dinner table while interacting with a computer that is trying to fathom the elements that make up the “perfect”, and quite possibly mythical, human family.

A.I., or Artificial Intelligence, is a big feature of DocLab this year, as is clear from the layout – a car outside (Ross Goodwin’s ‘1 the Road”), painted like a Mondrian, contains a novel composed by an A.I. machine and inspired by a road trip from New York to New Orleans. The novel is surprisingly good – but does that make it art? Says Sonnen, “We definitely see that there’s an enormous amount of debate, writing, disruptions that’s coming from machine learning. But as for A.I… What is A.I? The term itself is problematic, very problematic. It implies that there’s intelligence there, but we don’t even know what that exactly is. There are people who describe human beings as monkeys with A.I., so that already shows you what’s wrong with the term. It’s algorithms, it’s machine learning, it’s big data, and then it’s like making feedback loops and connecting them back to each other. It’s not necessarily consciousness. We don’t even know what it is.”

Unsurprisingly, this year’s projects take a neutral view of the new machine age, with Mark Meeuwenoord and Vincent Soffers’ exhibit “Algorithmic Perfumery” asking visitors to fill out a questionnaire before creating for them a unique, bespoke scent. Personally, Sonnen seems ambivalent about the pros and cons.

“If we look at our future,” he says, “the debate is basically that either the robot apocalypse is coming or it’s the opposite: Nature will wash us away. Nature will wash the pest of human beings off the face of the Earth. But nature will be fine. As [DocLab guest curator] Jonathan Harris said last year, it’s us who are in trouble. So it’s either nature or the machines that are coming for us – to put it in a ridiculously populist way, which is also something on the rise! And that made us think: So what does it mean to be human? It’s a question that every new media art form or descriptive texts uses. That sentence can be found everywhere.”

“And we started thinking about the idea of man versus nature versus machine. Man is in the middle, and technology is the thing that’s driving us there. So we wondered, what was actually the first technology? The first technology ever was cooking. Sitting around a campfire, telling stories. That was probably the first interactive storytelling – there would be multiple voices and multiple narratives. And alongside that was cooking – modifying nature so that it benefited us. Food is one of the few things that we will embrace and love. It’s probably the most human thing. Like if you ask people, what’s the difference between men humans and animals and humans and machines, it’s that we sit around a dinner table, we talk to each other, and we cook.”

He laughs. “My daughter, when she was three, somehow picked up the word robot. She was just making up a little fantasy story on our own, and she mentioned the word robot in there. I asked her, what is the definition of a robot? She said, ‘Oh, I know that – it’s a creepy human who cannot poop.’ Such an interesting definition. Not because everything my daughter says is interesting to me, but I actually think there is something there: We eat, therefore we poop!”

Caspar Sonnen
CREDIT: Nichon Glerum

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