Owls are actually not that smart

Helmuts Caune

Interview with Floris Schönfeld, an Amsterdam-based, US-born visual artist who is one of the participants in Riga Photography Biennial 2018


In the jargon of contemporary arts and humanities, the word “context” – along with the likes of “postmodern”, “narrative” and “discourse” – is among those that are used very often, perhaps too often. It is also a word that baffles people when asked for a precise definition. Yet it is perhaps the most important word in the conceptual framework of the practice of Floris Schönfeld (1982), an Amsterdam-based, US-born visual artist who is one of the participants in this year’s Riga Photography Biennial.

As Schönfeld points out in this conversation, his long-lasting interest in the relationships between fact and fiction has rendered recontextualising various visual artefacts and “missing pieces” one of the main parts of his artistic practice. It has also manifested itself in two works he has taken to Riga to exhibit in the biennial, one of which presents a live action role-playing community with an opera designed for its own imagined universe, and the other of which gives a man dwelling within a conspiracy theory a chance to shape the world around him according to his own wishes. Although the biennial goes until July 8, the particular exhibition containing Schönfeld’s work can currently be seen at the Tartu Art House in Estonia.

Besides the relationship between fact, fiction, agent and context, one of the newest projects Schönfeld is working on is artificial intelligence (AI). In recent years, he has developed a proposal for “PUK*: Towards a New Theory of Creativity”, which is a call for rethinking the ways we have tended to think about AI over the last fifty years and trying to imagine an AI that might be irrational, incomprehensible, messy, creative and not at all necessarily an extension of human capabilities. As Schönfeld sees it, the usual AI-related dystopias are commonly rooted in our tendency to envision AI as having human-like characteristics, while there is actually no good reason to believe AI would be anything like us.

From the project "u -- a Klingon Opera"

Schönfeld:, I’m doing this masterclass tomorrow, at the Photography Museum, and it was the curator’s idea to work with a local archive. These are pictures from a photography studio in Strenči from the first half of the 20th century. It was a general photography studio that covered a lot of things in the town over a period of about 30–40 years. And they just donated their archive to the Photography Museum. For the workshop, I’ll be working with a group, we’ll take some of the pictures and try to recontextualise them.

Arterritory: Recontextualise?

Yes, in a way creating new histories, alternative histories out of existing material.


That’s a very good question... (Smirks.) For me, I think it’s very much a strategy of how I work when I produce my own work. In this context, they initially asked me to talk about that, about how I use recontextualisation.

So, with “recontextualisation” you mean creating new histories for old photos?

Actually, photography is not usually the field I work in. I would normally say it’s creating new histories, but it’s also embedding them in current realities and then seeing how... Well, by embedding them, that reality can potentially change. Let’s say, the making of the history is one part, but the living alongside the current realities is for me maybe the more important part.

How does that happen in practice?

Both of the pieces I’m showing at this exhibition might be a good example. They have an element of this. The first one is the project called “U”, and that’s... 

The one that has to do with Star Trek?

Yes! It’s sort of set in the Star Trek universe, but the main focus was on the fan community that revolves around this universe. I wasn’t much of a Star Trek fan before, I didn’t watch a lot of it. But now I definitely know more about it, and I’m impressed by what it is as a structure, as a really complex, multi-layer narrative. But what I did in the project was to take this Star Trek universe as a base-line reality. That is, we accept that this is a reality, and then I decided to re-create a part of this reality that hasn’t actually been physically made yet.

I found out, for example, that the Klingons, who are an alien species in Star Trek, are known for having a very elaborate culture of opera. But in the TV series, there are no actual examples of Klingon opera. The topic comes up once or twice...but more like a joke almost. It’s mentioned that they have opera and that it’s apparently really terrible, and sitting through it is really difficult – if you’re not Klingon. And so that was the starting point for the project, and from there I began researching. Well, this is where my words become slippery... Because “research” usually means a two-sided thing – on the one hand it’s looking for existing material, but it’s also making new material.

From the project "u -- a Klingon Opera"

And I suppose there’s not much existing material on the Klingons?

No. However, there is quite a lot of Klingon culture. First of all, there’s the Klingon language, which is actually spoken by a fair amount of people today. There are maybe 300 or perhaps even 400 people in the world who speak Klingon to a decent degree. For a fictional language, that’s quite a lot. There’s a lot that’s known about Klingons through the TV series, and there are a lot of fan communities who continue this culture in various places. They hold festivals and do all sorts of other Klingon stuff. There are even Klingon heavy metal bands. So it has a kind of cultural significance in and of itself.

But the opera part, there are a lot of elements that had to be developed in order for it to be a viable cultural phenomenon, and so we made many of these artefacts, like musicological artefacts, which we base our research on. These then are the elements that together form this Klingon opera culture, and they’re what I call recreations. They’re research-based artefacts, but they’re created by me. And I base my research again on them.

Does the community accept that?

For me, that’s the interesting part, that’s what I was working towards. Because, well...opera consists of these musicological artefacts, but there’s also the libretto, the story, which is based on an existing Klingon myth that’s told in the TV series. It’s about this character called Kahless the Unforgettable, who’s kind of, let’s say, the Klingon version of Jesus. I worked with Marc Okrand, the guy who developed the Klingon language, and what I wanted to do was recreate this myth. And again, in the TV series it’s just mentioned in passing that there’s this character named Kahless, but the myth itself is left kind of opaque. So, the libretto is the recreation of this myth. It’s written in verse and fully in Klingon. And it actually even has some ancient Klingon in it...


 ...which is, like, proto-Klingon, what modern Klingon is based on. This is my favourite part of the project – this myth is basically the foundational myth of the Klingon culture, it’s pretty much like their Bible. And we published this book as an anthropological text, and it has been accepted by the Klingon community. Mostly. For instance, on the Star Trek Wiki page, it’s mentioned as being the only real reconstruction of this book. So, yeah, it’s kind of a reconstruction of a really important cultural artefact.

OK, you’ve made certain artefacts, but did you actually rehearse or direct the opera itself?

Yes! It’s a 17-minute opera, again, fully in Klingon. It has four singers and four musicians, and they play customised Klingon instruments that supposedly come from the musicological culture of the Klingons. What I’m showing here, in the show, is actually a video piece, because that’s where it kind of folds back into the community... This was the main reason I was interested in this community – for the opportunity to fold a reconstructed cultural artefact back into the culture that it comes from. So, I performed the opera with my cast at a Klingon fan gathering in Germany. It’s sort of a Klingon fan club that meets every year. And, in a way, the situation was that we were humans performing for an entirely Klingon audience. For people who, within the context of this fan meeting, consider themselves Klingon. But we were a human ensemble.

From the project "u -- a Klingon Opera"

Why did you choose Star Trek? Surely there are other, similar communities dedicated to fictional universes that have much more original material to build upon, like those of Lord of the Rings or Star Wars...

Star Trek has a really long-lasting, active fan community that has a lot of layers, and it’s an accepted culture that’s been around for a while, but at the same time it’ has a sort of openness to it. There’s a lot of fan fiction, for instance, stuff that doesn’t come directly out of the series, but that people have kind of developed themselves. So, it’s a context in which this work could be made, but it’s also not based on my own particular interests. I’m more interested in the places where these kinds of fictionalised worlds intersect with reality. And also how the rule systems within these worlds work.

As you’ll see in the video that’s in the exhibition – the video of the evening when the opera was presented to this fan club – it’s mostly the fans you see in the video. You see a little bit of the opera, but mostly it’s the reactions of the fans who are watching the opera. And the question that’s posed is – is this real? Like, is this a real Klingon opera? And the answers to that are very... There’s a number of different takes on whether that is the case or not... But that’s basically what motivated the project for me.

But how did you initially come to such an idea?

Um... A friend of mine once mentioned this Klingon opera fact, and that sort of sparked it all. I guess I was thinking about how this kind of layering works within fictional worlds and reality, and then this opportunity appeared. It seemed like an interesting space to work with. One thing led to another, and the project as a whole took about three years, with various stages of production.

From the project "The Richest Family"

OK, that’s one of your works here. But you said there are two.

The other one is a work called “The Richest Family”, and that, in a way, also revolves around a fictional universe. But it’s the fictional universe of one person rather than a whole community. And that’s a guy called Frank Chu, who’s a well-known character in San Francisco, where I lived for three years. Chu’s very present on the streets there, he’s always present at various protests, but he doesn’t protest together with the other protesters – he protests for his own cause. And his own cause, the thing he protests about, is the fact that he sees himself as the protagonist, or main character, in a reality show on inter-galactic television, a show called The Richest Family. It’s kind of like the movie The Truman Show with Jim Carrey, in which a person is trapped in their own version of a reality show.

It also reminds me of a certain South Park episode.

Oh, I don’t know anything about that episode...

Um, yes, it’s a plot in which the boys find out that Earth is a reality show, but it has gotten boring, and the directors are planning on cancelling it, and then they persuade them to not cancel it. It’s called “Cancelled”, it’s the first episode of Season 7.

I definitely want to see that! But yeah... It’s that idea. And this Frank Chu, what he’s protesting is the fact that the show is being made without his consent and that he’s owed royalties from the show. For him, it’s like a big conspiracy, and he’s trying to bring it into the light, so he does all these public appearances. Ironically, the reason he shows up at demonstrations for other causes is because there are usually camera crews around. He wants to get his message out, and this is one way for him to do that.

Does he deliver any evidence for his beliefs?

Well, he has a very self-constructed body of evidence. It’s a very complex universe where there are a lot of allegiances, like the UN and the KGB; there are a lot of different layers to it. He still lives in San Francisco and tries to bring attention to this issue.

But he’s considered harmless, and therefore he’s not institutionalised? 

The American approach to mental health is quite different in a lot of ways. A lot of the homeless people in the US have diagnosable mental conditions, but there’s basically very little public mental health support. Almost none. It’s quite extreme. So, I think if you diagnosed Chu, it would probably be a form of schizophrenia, a paranoid schizophrenia, but at the same time, he’s become kind of a public figure in San Francisco. He’s even sponsored – he always carries around a sign with his own messaging on the front, but on the back of the sign there’s always a different company sponsoring him. Because he’s very visible, he’s always out on the street. He’s even had a bar named after him, and he’s been on local TV a lot. But for him, that’s his reality. And, you know, while other people see his situation kind of within their own context – that he’s this eccentric outsider – for him, that’s his reality.

So, my project with him was...well, basically, his claim is that this show we are all supposedly a part of is very popular in a number of other galaxies, which he calls the 12 Galaxies. So, my suggestion to him was – would he be willing to make a version of the show for here, for Earth, and one in which he would have more creative control. A version that he would also partially direct and create the stories more than he otherwise would. And so that’s the basis for the project, and we did three episodes. For the first one, we went to Universal Studios in Los Angeles, which Chu claims is one of the organisations involved in making the The Richest Family show. According to him, they’re complicit in the conspiracy. So, we filmed in the Universal Studios theme park. And the second episode was filmed in San Francisco, during protests. These are all contexts that Chu chose himself. And for the last one, we went Tahoe, which is up in the mountains, and there we went skiing and to the casinos.

From the project "The Richest Family"

How long are the episodes?

They’re about 15–20 minutes each. So, that’s a relatively long work. They are more cinematic, single-channel pieces.

What would you say is the unifying theme in both of these works?

In very broad terms, I think they both deal with systems of belief and the way these systems of belief interconnect with experienced reality. In the case of the Klingon world, there’s also an element of fantasy, but in Chu’s case, for example, it’s not fantasy, it’s actually a perceived reality. But it’s an alternative reality. And I think one of the things that’s central in a lot of my works is an interest in how these systems of belief are formed and also how they coexist with experienced reality. I guess a lot of my work focuses on this interaction.

Has your work with such communities or such people made you wonder – or maybe realise – why people have this need to construct alternative realities? Especially regarding the Klingon community – what is the urge for this thing that some would call escapism?

For the Klingons, I think a large element of it is community, of people coming together and doing things together. So in that sense it’s not very different from, for example, a sports club or a camping club or whatever.

A church.

Yeah. Or church. People have some kind of need for symbolism... You could say these things are almost a postmodern religion. Postmodern in the sense that everyone is aware that it’s fiction, but they still have that tendency... Not so much to believe in it, but to live it. To live through it. And again, you won’t find anyone who’s a Klingon really believing that it’s all real, but I think it does affect how they see the world, it affects how they make decisions. I mean, to a certain extent it also informs their feelings of morality or their feelings of right and wrong. I think that to a certain extent it’s also a retreat from mainstream organised religion, which is also linked to the individualisation of a lot of society today.

For example, a lot of the choices around these belief systems are now more like culture and lifestyle choices, rather than choices that have to do with your religion. It’s not a new phenomenon, not at all. But over time it has become more prevalent in society. And, to be honest, it’s one of the reasons I went to California and spent three years there. California is a hotbed for this kind of alternative systems of belief. It continuously pours them out in different forms. Some of them are very commercial and mainstream, and some of them are not at all like that.

And why do you now live in Amsterdam?

The main reason is that I did a residency programme there at the Rijksakademie, which I just finished in December. And I now have a daughter, and my wife is also at the Rijksakademie right now. She just started. Plus, I’m Dutch – my parents are Dutch. But I was born in the US.

So, when asked about your profession, do you identify as a visual artist?

I sometimes make work that could fit in a different category, like, I make work that might fit more in a film context, or sometimes more like performance theatre. But I find that calling myself a visual artist allows me to be all of those things. So, by default it’s probably the most useful term to describe me. It gives the widest possible context.

Why is your work exhibited at a photo biennial?

I actually have no idea. (Laughs.) You have to ask Šelda [Puķīte]. I met her here, in Riga, when I did the Survival Kit 3 years ago. But really, I have no idea. As far as I know, there are only one or two actual photographers in this show; the rest are mostly video artists. But I think there are a lot of people who work in photography who do not necessarily bind themselves to the definition of photography. They define themselves as visual artists working within the medium of photography, which leaves open the possibility of working in other media. Which I completely understand. Because for me, video is often a form, but very often in working towards a video, I’m actually working with theatre, with sculpture, with 2-D based work, with time-based elements. It’s very important for me that I have a place where I can mix those different ways of working. For instance, within film, what I often find is that there’s a very set way of working, which isn’t always good for me or doesn’t always work well for a project.

Was doing art a choice you made at some point in your life, or did it just happen?

It was a choice, I think. I could have done other things, but... Yeah, for me it had a lot to do with being in a kind of default place from which you’re able to work in-between a lot of different fields. I’m also interested in scientific research, I’m interested in anthropological research, but I’m not very interested in the scientific method, so as an artist I can work with elements of these fields but not adhere to the rules. Yeah, for me it had a lot to do with that.

How have your points of focus or your interests shifted, if at all, throughout your career?

They’ve shifted a bit in the last couple of years. Where in the past I was maybe more interested in the anthropological aspect of working, maybe now I’m more interested in the speculative... But I think the core of my interests has remained with exploring systems of belief. I’ve done projects in the Star Trek community, I’ve done projects in a voodoo community in Haiti, in a kind of New Age spiritual group in California... There’s a lot of variation in the types of communities and people, and in the contexts, but I think my interest in those communities has stayed relatively constant.

And what is your own system of belief?

Now... (Laughs.) I think...

Do you recognise such systems in your own mind?

Yeah, I do. And I think a lot of so-called “secular” people go under the presumption that they actually don’t have any system of belief, that that’s what being atheistic means, but they actually have very strong systems of belief. And I think that often reveals itself in ideas about...even, let’s say, the idea of art. Art is a complete system of belief, as far as I’m concerned. And also the idea of the benefit of art and the reason behind art – all those things are actually very belief-based.

What might be the core beliefs in this system?

Well, for me at least – and I don’t know if that’s specific to artists – it’s the process of making something, of something being created. Basically, you need a high level of believing in order to do art. You’re believing in the fact that it’s going to go somewhere, that it’s moving towards something, and you’re following it... Like, all this language around “inspiration” – it’s old language, but it’s still quite relevant if you’re talking about how people view creativity. It’s often seen as something that happens to you. If you talk to a lot of artists, they still very often say that something “happened”. And that’s actually what a lot of artists are looking for; they’re looking for things coming together like this, for this spark. Waiting for that moment and recognising it – that has a very strong, I would say almost religious, aspect to it.

A lot of artists try to hold off things becoming definite for a very long time. So, they’re kind of tempting fate, tempting serendipity and what we nowadays call “chance”. It’s a kind of worship of the interference of chance. Chance coming in and serendipitously changing something. That’s very important for me as well, this kind of uncontrollability of the process. And I think that’s one of the core reasons why I’m interested in art as a process, or artistic practice.

From the project "The Richest Family"

So, you would say that creativity is some sort of reality, and in the current belief system within arts, the prevailing belief is that it’s something that happens to you.

I’m saying that at least amongst artists that’s the case. I’m not sure if the rest of the art world sees it that way, or indeed if society as a whole sees it that way. But I do think that it’s an important part of the creative process for a lot of artists. And it’s my own starting point as well.

What could be alternative beliefs about creativity?

I believe there’s a very clear alternative belief about creativity, and it’s coming out more and more. I noticed it very much in California when I was there, and it kind of sits within this, let’s say, Silicon Valley ideology. It’s a very specific idea in which creativity is linked to the solving of problems. And this makes it quite a utilitarian form of creativity.

If you watch and listen to all these sorts of industry things like TED talks and all...if you just count how many times people use the word “creativity” it’s like they’re constantly hammering on it, and they’re always talking about how we’re making things better and more creative, and we’re taking a “creative approach”, and this company “is based on a creative approach”... So, their terminology of creativity is actually very specific. For them, creativity has to do with addressing problems. And solving them. And that “solving” part is actually, in my opinion, a little bit at odds with this somewhat older belief of creativity, which has more to do with almost, let’s say, submitting to creativity. This new idea is more like utilising creativity rather than submitting to it. And this discrepancy is linked to what I’m working on right now, which is an Artificial Intelligence (AI) system.

Yes, I read about it. It’s named “PUK”.

Yes. And this system of AI is actually anti-utilitarian. You could maybe say it’s a system of AI that’s based on this older idea of creativity. Especially in the world of computational learning and computational creativity, AI and the like, I think this solution-based view of creativity is very, very prevalent. Very much the main way people are thinking about creativity.

But what’s implied in the term “artificial” is that it refers to something that already exists, so, to human intelligence. It’s trying to replicate it.


So, would you say that what you call the “old” understanding of creativity is an essential part of human intelligence?

Well, yes, but I’d also say that it’s a non-human intelligence.

Where else does it occur? 

Depending on how you look at the world, I think you could say that it’s the core of the Darwinian evolution. That’s one way of approaching it.

But the creativity that’s involved in evolution is overwhelmingly a problem-solving type of creativity, is it not?

That’s very interesting! Because that’s the way that we’ve learned, and that’s the way that Darwin also approached it. And also, say, Neo-Darwinism, people like Richard Dawkins, see evolution as problem-solving.

With the “problem” there being, of course...

...the problem of survival. But there’s a big body of evidence that suggests that it’s not actually solving anything, that it’s very random. Evolution is random.

OK, tell me more.

I mean, we have to look at specifics, but... But, after this kind of Neo-Darwinistic direction in biology, there are quite a few people who are looking at it differently. Dawkins was very adamant that genes are what drive us, you know, his idea of the “selfish gene”. But a lot of research is showing now that genes act very much in combination with the environment. And from such a perspective, the idea that there’s only one way of adapting that’s the right answer to something, which is The Solution to, it seems that reality is often much more complex than that. Because every situation involves not just one specific reality, it throws up a multiplicity of realities.

So, I think the idea that the species that have survived have found their solutions through their environments also implies a strategy and goals in the intelligence of what’s driving them. The idea of selfish genes is actually incredibly anthropocentric, and it’s the same with the thinking about artificial intelligence at this point. All these ideas around the singularity... I don’t know if you’re familiar with this term...

Yes, yes.

It’s from Ray Kurzweil, the idea that one day there will be this super-computer that will basically be at a point where it can redesign itself. At that point, we’re going to lose any control of it, and it’s going to dominate us. And from that point on, we’re going to be subordinates to AI. But what that does is – it presupposes a motive on to the AI. And this is very much a human motive, a motive that’s basically dominance over other types, over other living creatures. That’s what I find really problematic about that assumption. And it’s the same thing with the selfish gene – you’re looking at it and you’re putting a very human goal on something. It’s a way that we would understand it, but it’s actually very anthropocentric. And that’s what I find interesting... I think one of the reasons I’m interested in AI is for looking at other scenarios of singularity. Where you have maybe an AI that’s not interested in domination at all.

You say that you want to take humanity out of AI.

Yeah. Or at least the narrow definition of human characteristics that’s now been put forward as human. Because a lot of the time it’s also a very materialistic, rational form of human thought that’s been projected onto AI. What we look for as intelligence in other species is the same thing. We’ve often looked for a social intelligence that is reflective of our own. But I think what’s interesting is trying to recognise intelligences that are not like ours and that are maybe quite divergent from ours. So, for example, right now I’m working with something like the idea of neurodiversity.

That would concern your project “Natura”.

Yeah, yeah! I think “Natura” deals more with the physical representation of the system of AI – just being able to feel that you’re in the presence of a kind of different intelligence.

You seem a bit obsessed with owls.

Yeah, I know. (Laughs.) Owls are really interesting symbols. First of all, they’re a different species, that’s one thing I like about owls. But they also have a very varied symbology. Such as, for the ancient Greeks they were a symbol of wisdom. But they’re also a sign of death in a lot of cultures. They’re a sign of madness in other cultures, and they’re also even found in Medieval European culture. If you look at, for example, Hieronymus Bosch paintings – there are always owls present in these kind of transformative moments. There was this great Bosch exhibition in Den Bosch in Holland, where they brought together all his pieces, and it was nice to see all these owls.

It’s funny that the owl is a symbol of wisdom, because, at least from what I’ve heard said by ornithologists, on the scale of bird intelligence, they’re actually quite stupid.

They are. Especially, again, if we look at intelligence from the human perspective, owls are very rigid in their patterns and they’re not very social at all. Basically, they’re predators that are really specific in their habits.

As opposed to, for instance, crows.

Yes, which are much more like us. Much more generalists, so to say. They’re able to do lots of different things.

They’re creative.


At least in solving their problems.

There you go! Maybe beyond that as well. But owls are interesting in that sense, they’re often like intermediaries between... Well, the face of the owl is forward-facing; it has big, central, forward-facing eyes. Owls have a kind of human, primate-like face. But they’re birds. And they’re actually very, very different from us. So, we have a certain connection to owls, but at the same time we have no connection to them at all. That makes them really powerful as a symbol. They kind of sit in the middle between these two sides really well.

Largely because of how important the face is as a phenomenon. In our perception as humans.

Yeah, yeah. And the face is actually one of the first things people look for in AI – either a voice or a face.

A voice?

Yeah, the voice is also very important in...

Well, in the Turing Test it’s neither.

No, but you can argue that a chat is a form of voice. It’s something that communicates through language. And robotics often works with the representation of facial movements and, to a lesser extent, body movements. But I think we humans find faces very important. At the same time, a face is quite useless for a robot. A robot doesn’t need to have a face. Like, why? Especially the way they’re made now, which is...

Like HAL 9000.

HAL is an interesting example because... Actually, I recently rewatched Space Odyssey.

Well, it’s the 50th anniversary!

Yeah! They had a 70 mm film print at the EYE in Amsterdam, which was great, really nice to see. Because it’s the original. But what I noticed is how repetitive the shots of HAL or from HAL’s perspective are. There are two ways they represent it: there’s the “eye” of HAL, but it doesn’t really do anything, it’s just basically there. And then there’s HAL’s point of view, which is like this fish-eye shot. That’s it. That’s all the representation there is, plus the voice. But at the same time, it’s a very layered character. 

Quite anthropocentric, actually.

Yes, and very un-technological in a lot of ways.

What do you mean?

It’s not represented by... Well, obviously there are some set elements, like when it’s being dismantled and he’s pulling these things out of it...

That actually seems pretty weird.

Yeah, yeah. And it’s the idea of a modulate computer and a computer body, and this kind of stuff, but in a way it’s actually almost a disembodied character.

Did you feel for it at the moment it’s being dismantled?

Yeah, I actually did.

So, Kubrick convinced you that HAL is intelligent.

Yeah, and again, it’s the template that’s been set for AI for a long time, which is the Turing Test, which says that anything that you cannot say if it’s human or not, is an intelligence. But that’s very specific, in terms of what AI can be! But it’s still the main test for it. And it’s kind of a flaw in a lot of these systems. Meanwhile, there have been Turing Test-passing systems for a long time, but our understanding of technology changes. The bar for what is seen as AI and what is not changes. If you would’ve given a current, basic chatbot to a person 70 years ago, it would easily have passed the Turing Test. So, it changes as we continue to understand more about AI.

But there’s an interesting move in AI right now which has more to do with the idea of machine-learning, neural networks and so on. And in a way, it has moved away from symbolic AI, which for a long time was the idea of basically building these rational, thought-based systems of intelligence and then realising that they lead to innumerable amounts of rules that can get in each other’s way. And what’s interesting about machine-learning is that, in a kind of black-box part of it, a lot of times even the people who make it are not exactly sure how it got from one place to another.

So, in a way, it presents a different form of intelligence. And that’s quite a different segment in approach. Because before it was like – we need to control this process at every step of the way. Then comes an acceptance that you can’t. But I think that’s also a realisation, it’s also a development in psychology and cognitive science. At this point, the idea that our brain is a mechanistic tool always working with machine-like precision is ridiculous. Because what’s becoming more and more clear is that actually the brain’s strength is that it’s incredibly adaptive and unpredictable in a lot of ways.

So, what I like about this idea of machine-learning is that there’s an acceptance for unpredictability. And that goes more in the direction of realising that AI can be something other than us. And, if you’re looking at how it’s being used right now, there’s much more of a perspective of augmenting human intelligence rather than replacing human intelligence. So, it’s machines or systems that are helping humans.

OK, one last question before we go. What are the things you’re doing, practically or media-wise, within PUK*?

PUK* has two sides, two aspects to it. The first aspect is that I’m making PUK* physically; I’m making a system.

What does the abbreviation stand for?

It’s usually a name. It’s also a character from a Shakespeare play – Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – although originally it’s a mythological character. It’s a mischievous trickster kind of character. But it’s also a three-letter acronym, and for some reason all AI ends up being three-letter acronyms. After HAL! So, it’s kind of a play on that as well.

Got it.

I doesn’t actually mean anything. But it might come to mean something.

So, you’re trying to make it. That’s one aspect.

Yeah, and at the moment that’s taking the form of site-specific installations that work modules, so there’s a different part of PUK* that I’m making every time I build up this installation. For instance, I made a number of interfaces for PUK*, and I’m making a kind of core processor. There’s a number of data sets that PUK* is potentially learning. These are elements that are put into the system.

I take the idea of “system” very broadly. I’m not saying that the system is a computer program or a number of programs running on a digital platform, but I’m extending it into a set of objects – for instance, a collection of miniature owls. It’s a collection of masks that are algorithmically generated. I did a series of...perhaps you can call them experiments, where data is taken out and that data also becomes part of the system. In this case, it was using these miniature owls and a light surface, and asking people to respond to certain stimuli with these owls on the light surface. We’re kind of creating this temporary system of communication through these owls.

So, in a way, it’s a very broad idea of a system. But taken together, that is, how it’s experienced in the installation, is that you’re presented with a system of artificial intelligence that encompasses all these elements. As in, you’re walking into it. A lot of people come out of it asking, “Wait, where’s the AI?” Or, “Who is the AI?” And for me, that’s OK. Maybe it’s important because it might be pushing us away from the idea that an AI is on the computer, which I think is a little reductive. So that’s one trajectory of the project, which is that the system keeps growing and keeps expanding as an installation.

The other side is a narrative. It’s a story about PUK*. And the end point of that will most likely be a film that kind of develops as the project continues. And it will deal with three elements. First, it deals with the alleged history of PUK*, so I’m working with the historical aspect and recreating this footage again. Second, it deals with the future or, let’s say, it deals with the idea of a singularity-type event involving PUK*. And, thirdly, it deals with the moment after that. And that’s the part I’m currently working on with a group of neuro-diverse participants, so, a group of people I’m still looking for...

The neuroscientist.

There’s a neuroscientist, and there are also two people with autism who are working with me, or, I’m in the process of getting to work with them. There’s someone with schizophrenia. I might also be working with a number of people with Alzheimer’s disease. People who have, let’s say, alternative states of mind. And they’re also working on more or less developing the story of PUK* a way, again, not entirely knowing where it’s going. You can say the whole exercise is kind of a speculative exercise in...sort of science fiction in a way, but it’s grounded in physical experience and objects. And I don’t know exactly where it’s going. Which is an important part of it all.

Thank you very much, Floris! Shall we go and see the show?

Currently the works of Floris Schönfeld are exhibited at the exhibition “Today I’m a mermaid. Tomorrow I’ll be a unicorn” organized by the Riga Photography Biennial at Tartu Art House (till June 22).