Chiarina Chen: What Can a Posthumanist Approach Bring to the AI Conversation?

By Alexandra Israel Alexandra Israel has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team
Published on August 30, 2023

The art world acts as an incubator for many avant-garde ideas about life and living, and artists and curators alike often present new ways for us to see what is around us. Chinese-born New York-based curator Chiarina Chen does both.

In her work, she engages with Posthumanism. It is a term existing within multiple fields, including philosophy, technology studies, sociology, and critical theory, that essentially undermines the distinctions between human, animal, and technology.

Are you confused? That’s OK. As part of the Posthuman Research Group at NYU, where she serves as co-chair of the seminars and discussions to propose research subjects and organize interdisciplinary art projects, Chen has developed her thoughts on the topic. The group even supported one of her curatorial projects featuring cyborg artist Moon Ribas, and she is planning on organizing discussions on how posthuman philosophy intersects with ancient Chinese knowledge systems.

Chen produces exhibitions in theaters, churches, museums, and galleries that relate to our relationship with technology. 

I decided to interview Chen because her work can bring new perspectives to other fields. It is useful for those who are considering how to philosophically approach AI and is something worth thinking about as programmers and entrepreneurs incorporate AI and cyborgs into their work. 

Chiarina Chen
Chiarina Chen, photographed by Curtis Pan.

Alexandra Israel: What are the implications of posthuman kinship for our understanding of family, relationships, and our engagement with technology?

Chiarina Chen: I find a deep alliance of Donna Haraway’s cross-species companionship with Rosi Braidotti’s ethics of radical immanence and the shift from ‘bio’ to ‘zoe.’ Both break the hierarchal and dualist divide between human/nonhuman, nature/culture, human/machine and search for intersectional movements and interconnectedness.

Discourses of posthuman kinship can activate a new mental sphere that urges us to ask ourselves what we are becoming. What can we be in relation with? Who and what has been missing in history? Weren’t we cyborgs long before Chat GPT went viral?

It detoxes the arrogance we humans carry, and that’s good. Because arrogance has existed as longstanding as the continuation of linear blood, it may be time to expand toward a more horizontal, hybrid kinship bonded by bold imagination, difference, and care.

AI: How does Haraway’s work challenge traditional understandings of identity and embodiment? Which of her ideas needs to be adopted by mainstream programmers?

CC: For mainstream programmers. What instantly comes to my mind is to adopt Haraway’s concept of situated knowledge, which emphasizes that knowledge is always situated within a particular context, perspective, and social framework. This challenges the notion of objective, universal truth and highlights the importance of acknowledging diverse viewpoints when designing and implementing AI technologies.

Perhaps as AI and technology become increasingly integrated into our lives, programmers should consider designing systems that don’t enforce strict binary classifications but instead allow for nuanced, flexible interactions. Her emphasis on ethics of technology is also essential to be adopted when designing AI, such as incorporating ethical considerations, addressing biases, and fostering interdisciplinary collaborations constantly.

Haraway’s work, particularly her influential essay “A Cyborg Manifesto,” harshly critiques binary oppositions such as human/machine, nature/culture, and male/female, arguing that these divisions limit our understanding of the complex, intertwined nature of our existence. Her concept of the cyborg challenges the idea of a fixed, essential identity by proposing a hybrid, fluid understanding of embodiment.

It’s inspiring to envision the cyborg as a boundary-blurring entity that defies easy categorization, merging human and machine, organism, and technology, especially today. By embracing the cyborg as a metaphor for identity, she invites us to question rigid distinctions and adopt a more inclusive, adaptable understanding of who we are and what we are becoming.

AI: What are the potential benefits and risks of incorporating artificial intelligence into artistic practice?

CC: I’ll start with risk because risks to artists and their practices seem to be a much stronger drive in asking this question. From an artist’s standpoint, as an individual, the one perfects through either medium, concepts or techniques, the risk could be that AI-generated content seems good enough to overshadow human artists’ creativity and agency.

I was in conversation with a group of photojournalists in June, and they were pretty freaked out as a well-known photography award was given to an AI-generated piece. The reaction is legit and understandable. As AI becomes ubiquitous, the single individualistic mind is limited and incompatible if we put ourselves in competition with AI, which may lead to the risk of either withdrawing from art practices or growing overdependent on AI. And such overdependence could lead to a homogenization of styles and a loss of diversity in creative expression.

However, I still see benefits in this so-called risky process triggered by AI. For one reason, it is an opportunity to open discourses about what it means to create art and be an artist today. The glorification of the artist, the individualistic man, traces back to the early Renaissance. And the individualist man has been the master of tools, technology, and nature for a couple of good centuries. Let’s not forget the ‘master’ man kicked off the idea of progress and technological advancement, and nothing that happened today is unforeseeable.

It’s actually a good time to re-examine the idea of the artist as a sole individualistic entity and rethink what it means to create art today, if not on an individualistic level. I think the use of AI can only benefit one who’s no longer obsessed with individualistic perfection or puts themselves in an oppositional rival with technology. In that sense, AI can be a powerful collaborator to spark new ideas and imagination that one might not have conceived otherwise.

Recently I’ve seen lots of interesting human/AI collaborative pieces that merge human emotion with algorithmic power. Artists felt insecure in part also because the current system in the art world, bluntly speaking, how money and status circulate, has not yet been updated to accept the authorship for the human/AI ‘symbiont.’ It may take another decade or so for the human/AI artist to embrace its time, not only in the experimental arena but hopefully in the art market.

AI: Can artistic practice help us mitigate the risks of our dependence on technology? Are there risks or ethical implications of developing increasingly sophisticated AI?

CC: Let me answer the second question first. There are indeed risks and ethical concerns in developing increasingly sophisticated AI. For instance, it can inherit biases in its training data, leading to discriminatory outcomes and reinforcing societal inequalities. There’s also a risk of infringing on individuals’ privacy rights and compromising sensitive information.

And to the question, ‘can art practices help or mitigate risks of dependence on technology?’ The answer is yes, especially in the field of contemporary art. Artistic practices or exhibitions can show the potential of collaboration with AI and, at the same time, highlight issues such as privacy breaches, data surveillance, bias, and the erosion of personal connections due to excessive technology use. It’s also at the core of my curatorial projects.

For instance, the exhibition you asked about was about revealing the inherited problems and biases in today’s male-dominated program system and how we can interact with AI to foster interconnectedness and empathy toward each other. This way, I see active engagement more than passive dependency.

Ishraki Kazi. “Bacterial Consent,” 2022. E. coli, synthetic DNA, petri dish, and growth media in photographic print. Courtesy of the artist.

AI: You worked on an exhibition showing the artist Ishraki Kazi’s work at MIT. Tell me more! 

CC: It was such a great collaboration with Ishraki Kazi. The project started with our shared anxiety about the prevailing human-centric mentality. Let it be the art, climate, capital, science, and labs. We had long conversations about how we are limited by language and existing knowledge systems. For instance, he shared with me this moment once in the lab when he accidentally killed bacteria.

The moment triggered a series of inquiries, such as how we sense or communicate with something that’s so out of reach on a nano level. Do they have agencies? What does it mean to kill? Can we claim that microbial entities are not conscious because they don’t possess consciousness like humans? Some of these answers are already definitive in the human realm of science, which leads to another inquiry of methodological approaches.

In this project, Ishraki made a 360-degree video essay with scientific collaborator Anna Romanov in her origami nano lab, raising questions about the control methods in a lab. As Romanov shared with us, as a scientist who works in the lab, you always want to get the perfect results via controlled variables, eliminating any interference. However, one can never claim total control, for too many factors can affect the experiment, including those unseeable to the human eye. These inquiries from both scientists’ and artists’ experiences are poetic to me, troubling as always, but poetic in a way that collectively, we are eye-browsing at our limits.

Thus, this project aims to reveal the ‘uncontrollable’ side of reality and questions the reductionist approaches to science and binary divisions between mind and body, subject and object, self and other. Instead of looking at bio-art on a pedestal, we want to trigger a deeper psychological engagement, so the centrality of the exhibition is Ishraki’s durational performances, which engage audiences one-on-one in the space.

During this process, one might experience how our knowledge system may be limited and how we are intrinsically entangled with other beings, human and nonhuman. It was not easy for each performance last at least one hour. We even designed consent forms for each one to sign before experiencing the unsettling self-questioning mode.

We pretty much transformed this regular space into a dark land filled with not only moss but also motifs of death and uncertainty. It’s incredible to encounter so many interesting people, artists, biologists, quantum physicists, scholars and students from MIT and Harvard. I really appreciate how everything turned out because people did not come with a prefixed mindset. They were willing to engage with these inquiries even if it meant to challenge their own way of thinking. 

Accent Sisters Posthumanism
AI-generated nightmare visualization on view in “Lava.AI.Dream” at Accent Sisters.

AI: Your most recent exhibition, “Lava.AI.Dreams,” operated at the forefront of AI and at the intersection of psychology and feminism. Which AI design tools did you use to visualize the nightmares? How did you work with the program and artists involved in the exhibition? What surprised you about collaborating with AI, if anything? 

CC: We used GPT API, Touchdesigner, and Midjourney together to visualize nightmares that I collected through a document that circulated from person to person like a secret chain quickly becoming a hidden digital sharing space. Regarding collaborating with AI, nothing comes as a big surprise regarding technology.

Well, for instance, nothing like ‘singularity’ or gaining consciousness happened. Right now, in essence, it’s still a large language model that assembles a configuration of words. It’s not AI itself that puts me in awe, but the experience of feeling the collective nightmare through the vehicle of AI. One moment, the AI monolog starts to tell a story of women exploring their sexual desires together. I was a bit surprised because it was generated on its own, and knowing it’s been engaging and reconfiguring hundreds of unfiltered stories behind it was terrific.

AI: What do you have to say to people feeling anxious about the increased transparency around the emergence of AI and increased accessibility to AI tools in everyday life?

CC: ​​I’d say being anxious is totally normal, and in fact, I see it as an affirmative attitude toward an ever-shifting socio-techno landscape. I’m not a techno-optimistic person nor someone succumbing to sublime despair. Turning anxiety into actions of the now, learning to deal with the problems, and not withdrawing is the least we can do. AI today still needs lots of training and regulation, and it will become a daily effort for us all to engage with it, from raising ethical awareness to checking if the tool prioritizes transparency, fairness, and user privacy. I find sharing concerns and insights about AI with friends or communities can also help reduce feelings of isolation and anxiety.

Perhaps the title of my MIT show, Poetics of Inquraiy: How to Stay with Trouble, answers this question. If it’s already a ‘trouble,’ and we know it’s too late to cut it out, then keep up with the inquiries and focus on ‘how to’ stay with it.

AI: What is next in the pipeline for you? 

CC: I’m preparing a group show, The Tale of the Errantry to the End of the Night, that explores posthuman diaspora in an off-Broadway theater from September 6 to September 16. It explores the fluid and transformative natures of today’s diasporic experience and how it’s materialized and embedded in uncanny kinship and personal tales. I’m also curating a digital mapping group show, Enchanted Current, at Heckscher Museum in early October and a duo exhibition on AI and nature at :iidrr Gallery in early November. These projects are all different but interconnected, and I’m so thankful to have these happenings in my favorite season. I’m also writing a book next year that will encapsulate these projects and behind-the-scenes stories.

Follow Chiarina Chen on Instagram here and DM her to book your visit to The Tale of the Errantry to the End of the Night between September 6-September 16 in New York City.  

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By Alexandra Israel Alexandra Israel has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team

Alexandra Israel is a contributor to Grit Daily, a freelance arts writer and publicist. A museum aficionado since her introduction to Jean Dominque Ingres' portraits as a small child, she enjoys spending her free time at museums and finding off-the-beaten-track gallery shows. She is a regular contributor to the art publication Cultbytes. With her finger on the pulse, Alexandra has been working in PR for over seven years, primarily within book publishing and in the art world. She has held positions at Penguin Book Group, Aperture Foundation, and Third Eye. Alexandra graduated from Bates College in 2010.

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