Is artificial intelligence taking over the world?

Odrija Kalve

Q&A with Juhan Soomets, the winner of the Baltic Young Artist Award


On 4 November, at the Latvian National Museum of Art, the first-ever Baltic Young Artist Award was presented to Juhan Soomets. Having been chosen from 53 nominees, that same evening Soomets’ exhibition featuring an interactive art installation, The Artist’s Room, was ceremoniously opened in the Museum’s 4th floor exhibition hall. It will be open for viewing through 27 November.

The Artist’s Room at the Latvian National Museum of Art. Photo: Kristīne Madjare

“I am proud of the award as an opportunity to exhibit my work at the Latvian National Museum of Art,” said Soomets after receiving the award. “At the forefront of my installation is the involvement of the viewer. The sound compositions that the viewer can create by simultaneously touching the aluminum and copper ‘strings’ is a seemingly authentic and individual experience. Nevertheless, behind it is a program that dictates the boundaries of this experience. How much do we know about this as we spend an increasing amount of time in virtual environments? How ready are we to incorporate this into our art experience as well?”

In his work The Artist’s Room, Soomets makes use of technologies that have “grown up” together with most of his generation of viewers, and they span five whole decades. The sound design comes from analog synthesizers built in the 1970s. The programming aesthetic is from the 80s, which is when Soomets learned computer science at school. The programming language used in the installation comes from the 90s, when writing code took on the audiovisual shape that we are familiar with today. The computer used in the installation is a year 2000 model, whereas the regulator that manages the touch-sensitive “strings” comes from the “internet-of-things” decade.

Juhan Soomets (1975) graduated from the Estonian Academy of Arts’ Department of New Media (2016), as well as from the Art Education Department at Tallinn University (2004). He currently lives in the village of Triigi in northern Estonia, where in addition to working on his art, he cares for his garden, does carpentry, and teaches cybernetics and robotics at the local primary school. His creative body of work is characterized by playing with combinations – coupling low-tech gadgets with the latest technological innovations.

The Artist’s Room at the Latvian National Museum of Art. Photo: Kristīne Madjare

Your installation Artist’s Room requires audience participation. By touching the aluminum and copper “strings” of your installation, one becomes a transmitter of signals. Isn’t that dangerous?

It has no bigger effect to the human body as touching the screen of a smart phone – the device measures capacity. But it is very dangerous in the sense that it is a 200kg-heavy installation, and if it were to topple over it might be a problem. A friend of mine – a local blacksmith – did the iron connections and guarantees that they can withstand 500 kg, but you never know... The wooden parts of the installation are made from a 150-year-old ash tree – the same age as the museum [the Latvian National Museum of Arts, which is where the exhibition is taking place – red.]. If you look at the installation from ground-level, you can see a bullet hole in it. The bullet was in the tree, and the arborist (from whom I bought the material) looked at the tree-rings and said that it is a tin bullet from World War I. And as Riga is the “glamour capital” of the Baltics, I used wood that cost over 1000 euros per cubic meter. [Laughs]

The Artist’s Room at the Latvian National Museum of Art. Photo: Kristīne Madjare

Weren’t the same materials used for the installation in your exhibition in Tallinn? Or was that a different installation?

In my exhibition in the gallery I used a previous work of mine, An Empty Painting, for the wooden box. It was like a recycled artwork. In Riga, the room is bigger and the museum is more fancy, so I used the deluxe ash tree.

It says in the exhibition statement that you are using technologies that incorporate a history that spans five decades. How did you come up with the idea for this work?

Yes, and it is also a remix of all of my previous works. In 1989 I did my first programming for a graphics program because I had a computer, but I didn’t have a painting program on it, so I had to do the programming on my own. Then, in 1996, I programmed the first Estonian shareware game, Rockets, for Amiga computers with my friends. (We had a software company called The Farm. In the historical archives The Farm is mentioned as the first-ever Estonian computer game company.) I don’t consider this installation an artwork, but since we are in a museum, it has to be an artwork. For me, it is a kind of computer game, and it has the aesthetics of computer game programming – the interface comes from the golden age of computer games: the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s. I removed the visual narrative because, in our everyday lives, and in art as a whole, we are very visually oriented; so, only the physical part remains – the speakers and the wooden box. The user interface is more like that of a computer game – as you touch different sensors, you get to know the architecture of this system, and you can exert more control. The first stage is: there are six different “strings” (sensors), and you can make six different sounds. If you advance and use more sensors at this time, you can get the program to go really out of control – beyond all audio ranges, and it will go rogue and start to act independently. In cybernetics theory, there is a very topical question being raised – is artificial intelligence taking over our world? And as you proceed on this installation and take control of more strings, it takes over and takes control of you. It becomes crazy and independent.

I wanted to reprogram the sounds for the installation in Riga – to make the installation different, but in this specific room I had so much fun playing with it in its original form, that I didn’t want to change anything. Although the program is the same, it sounds really different because of the acoustics of the room. For the first installation, in the former textile factory in Tallinn, I used 80 W speakers, but here there are 500 W speakers. So the program is the same, but it is a very different experience.

The Artist’s Room at the Latvian National Museum of Art. Photo: Kristīne Madjare

The Artist’s Room at the Latvian National Museum of Art. Photo: Kristīne Madjare

Do you believe that artificial intelligence is taking over the world?

In the Estonian Academy of Arts, there are questions being directed to the professors – What is the meaning of your work? What will your students become? I have an answer for the New Media Department – they should develop artificial intelligence teachers. All of the teachers from the other departments – painters and sculptors, poets, etc. – can be dismissed. The artificial teachers of New Media will take over and rule the education process. Just like in economics, where we want to cut costs, I will develop cybernetic teachers that will save us a lot of money. This is just one step down this road. This is the future of art teaching – AI will take over. [Laughs] My other visual project is a really simple machine made from a constructor set meant for children. It will draw itself. There is no need for painters anymore – my machine will paint. It’s not about art, it’s about taking over art education. [Laughs]

Do you consider yourself an artist?

That is a difficult question. Others consider me to be an artist.