For those interested in artificial intelligence, we live in exciting times. While the excitement is ubiquitous, there is also apprehension. AI is showing signs of heralding a massive transformation in the functioning of society. It is but inevitable that one encounters a multitude of responses to the phenomenon. Along with AI, another phenomenon that threatens significant disruption of societal functioning is climate change. These two domains, that aren’t typically placed side by side, were brought together at the FutureFantastic festival, recently organised at the Bangalore International Centre.
The festival featured performances, workshops, installations and dialogues geared at invoking and facilitating a collaborative, sustainable approach to engaging with technology and the environment. In the backdrop of this festival was the headlining show — Palimpsest. Presented by dancer-choreographer Madhu Natraj’s Natya-STEM Dance Kampni, this was claimed to be a show where AI/ technology was a fellow performer, and not just a collaborator. It was undeniably a novel experiment that managed to push the envelope of collaborative possibilities between art and technology.
The 35-minute show with four pieces in total, left a lasting impression with its smorgasbord of beautifully contrasting aural and visual elements. The show commenced with Madhu taking the stage for a set of introductory remarks. She was interrupted by the AI generated sutradhār-video bot, Kria, who took over to guide the audience through the rest of the show, building the narrative and stitching the pieces together. Three other smaller screens supported Kria’s massive screen at the back of the stage as the ‘tech performers’ of the show.
Picking up from the theme of the festival itself, the first piece expressed an anxiety induced by climate change. An unsettling aesthetic was facilitated through temporal dissonances intelligently composed through nuanced rhythmic plays. The music and choreography featured interesting points of synchronicity and asynchrony, effectively carrying across the convincing anguish of the dancers on stage with respect to the theme. Kria stepped away from the screen during the pieces, allowing the screen to present complementing visuals for the dance.
The juxtaposition of the movements on stage with the visuals on screen facilitated an immersive experience beyond that of just a dance performance. Kria would appear in between pieces to continue building the narrative, and highlight the importance of attending to our environment as humans.
The second piece was about water. While the aesthetic was gentle and flowing through a graceful circularity in the choreography, Kriya’s preface along with the AI-generated visuals on the screens during the piece left a lingering sense of foreboding. We hear that future wars will be fought over water. If nothing else, this piece will certainly continue to remind its viewers to be more judicious and responsible in their usage of water in their daily lives, thus making the entire effort worth it.
Building on this, the third piece addressed climate-induced displacement of people. This again featured an interesting juxtaposition of a mellow melancholic tone over the devastation induced by an angry personified nature. Using a song borrowed from the Baul tradition, the shift in language complemented again by powerful AI-generated visuals served as an effective medium to tell the story. This piece saw the addition of singer MD Pallavi as a human performer, along with the dancers and the screens. The abstraction of the dance movements complementing the song allowed the storytelling to simultaneously express a personalised tale while also painting a larger picture of the socio-economic ramifications of climate-induced displacement.
The final piece was a Kannada song of rejuvenation sung by Pallavi. Encouraging the audience to participate and join the artises on stage, this piece dissolved the barriers between the stage and hall. Like how the barriers between the artiste and technology were dissolved, this piece reinforced the necessity of working together to tackle the challenges at hand.
The lighting design by Suryanarayana Rao and Keerthi Kumar was exquisite. Though designed by humans, this is a manifestation of technology as a performer that we already see frequently. What was interesting to note was that the sutradhār herself was a pre-recorded video. One might then wonder if Kria could really be considered a performer. And if so, shouldn’t the usage of video projection anywhere qualify as featuring technology as a performer?
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A human artiste even presenting a piece composed by someone else still qualifies as a performer. What would it take for a non-human entity to achieve the same qualification? Especially when the content was generated by the non-human entity itself. When ChatGPT generates a beautiful poem or DALL-E a beautiful image, to what extent does one credit the programme itself over the humans who created the programmes? Though there may never be a conclusive answer to such inquiries, it certainly can lead to interesting insights and discoveries even about the human condition. While one engages with any art for the content of what it offers, another motivating factor is to simply witness the culmination of human effort. Thus differentiating the impact of, for instance, streaming an album at home-versus-witnessing the band play live.
The AI partnership here added additional dimensions to the experience of the same. A palimpsest through and through. Despite valid concerns about AI taking over jobs in various sectors, there’s also the promise of it collaboratively spawning newer opportunities of productivity. The FutureFantastic festival, presented by Be Fantastic and FutureEverything (UK) explored this very collaborative potential through this performance and all its other offerings.