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Review: In Conversation with Laurie Anderson (LIVE STREAM) at Bonython Hall

Review by Lisa Lanzi

While this wasn’t strictly a performance it was a thrill to be in the digital company of Laurie Anderson and hear her thoughts on machine learning, or AI, and its potential (or not) within the creative arts.  If, like me, you were exploring creativity in any form during the 80s, Anderson’s multidisciplinary influence was ever present.  At 76 years of age, this creator seems just as vital (and still making art) as she was when O Superman was released in 1982.

Chairing the hour long session was Stephen Whittington, pianist, composer, and lecturer at the Elder Conservatorium of Music in Adelaide.  Joining the conversation from the stage were Tom Hajdu (Professor and Chair of Creative Technologies, University of Adelaide and Director of the Sia Furler Institute) and Anton van den Hengel (Director of Applied Science at Amazon and Director, the Centre for Augmented Reasoning, Australian Institute for Machine Learning).  Thomas Hajdu (with Andy Milburn) also works in music and music production with New York-based Tomandandy and has previously worked with Laurie Anderson, as had van den Hengel.  This event was linked to a free exhibition of Anderson's text-based artwork titled I'll Be Your Mirror, which is also part of the 2024 Adelaide Festival program.

In terms of machine learning, both Hadju and van den Hengel were quick to reassure the audience that machine learning simply won’t go the way of self-aware ‘Skynet’ and other science fiction disaster scenarios because we can simply “turn off the machine”.  Much discussion was centred around the concept of human intelligence and the fact that artificial intelligence is merely a tool.  It only succeeds if the inputs it receives are well designed and specifically articulated.  (You may have seen the recent scandal where the marketing department at the Queensland Symphony used AI to create an image that went horrifically ‘wrong’ and caused much indignation.)  Anderson also spoke of tasking AI to aid in music composition and other art projects and how the creator must ‘ask the right questions’; she also posited that creativity in this realm is about 90% editing.  You may collect a treasure trove of choices ranging from terrible, just ok, and pretty good, so that the provocations are useable but there is no intentional forming (in say writing) of narrative, idea development, or refining the prose or poetry.

An interesting artistic comparison for the randomizing capacity of AI creation was brought up by Anderson:  Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, and William S Burroughs for example, all utilised ‘chance’ as creative tools years ago.  Whittington also referenced the I Ching (Book of Changes) from three thousand years ago as a tool of chance used to generate decision-making.  Anderson also likened creation with AI as a starting point that then leads an artist to a curating and filtering role to shape a desired outcome.

Further consensus from Anderson and the two men spoke of the physical human body and all our senses that organically contribute to creativity whereas AI will never be able to utilise those.  Anderson mentioned humanity’s fundamental ability to connect meaningfully through our bodies and all their resources, to any amount of unrelated stimuli whereas machines can only ‘act’ on the queries we provide.  AI cannot question or challenge, merely respond, so that the role of artist and creator will always be necessary. 

Anderson touched on a number of fascinating recent and future projects she is involved with, where machine learning was or will be a tool.  She has also collaborated with Hajdu on two AI tools to voice text: a ‘Laurie AI’ and a ‘Lou AI’, as in Lou Reed the deceased musician and husband of Laurie Anderson.  In a spooky reveal, Anderson played a track of some AI generated poetry, spoken in the voice of Lou Reed.  As she pointed out, the syntax and phrasing is quirky to say the least, but also takes the textual language in an interesting poetic direction that she herself may not have imagined but can certainly use as an artistic stepping stone for further poetry or song writing.

In this marvellous conversation about art, artificial intelligence, technology and more, the take away message was both clear and reassuring.  AI / machine learning is a tool that will improve in time but will remain a passive apparatus, totally under the control of the artist using it.  The technology seems somewhat irrelevant to us as working creatives but in reality, we need to keep up with the progress and stay informed.  Machine learning will continue to impact our lives in many more ways than we can imagine, artistically and otherwise.

Image Supplied


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