It’s hard to predict what the future holds when so much of it lies in the metaphorical hands of artificial intelligence. But Curiocity Brisbane, part of World Science Festival Brisbane, offers the chance to examine our robot overlords close, with a good dollop of black humour. You can defrag with some cat videos, a Trojan Horse in full floral bloom and a stunning light field.
We asked curator Jay Younger to walk us through five of the 10 public art installations (nine of which were specially commissioned), which you can see for absolutely nix in Brisbane’s South Bank and city areas.
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Cat Royale is a new artwork by UK-based Blast Theory that will be screened every day in Queen Street Mall. This feline Big Brother set-up will be surreal for passers-by with no background knowledge. Three cats are living the high life in a luxury lab in the UK, waited on hand and foot by AI. Well, there’s a robotic arm, anyway.
“It'll be dangling feathers and playing with the cats and keeping them entertained,” Younger says. “The AI is meant to learn how to make the cats happier over the duration of the festival. It’s going to be on a big screen in a pavilion in the Queen St Mall. So you can sit down on beanbags, have coffee, hang out, get to know the cats and check out whether the AI is entertaining them to their satisfaction. Underneath that is a serious question: What is the role of AI and is it something that can make people happier? It’s increasingly involved in menial tasks as well as military things, so how do we want to use AI going forwards?”
Staring down the skyscrapers of the CBD, looking beautifully benign, is a Trojan Horse abloom with native plants. The seven-metre-tall living artwork from Queensland sculptor Simone Eisler relates to the threat of not taking climate change seriously. “It’s highlighting the importance of seed banks, trying to focus our attention on the vital role that native plants play in providing habitat for native animals and birds,” says Younger.
The Climate Wars is the centrepiece for Curiocity Brisbane on South Bank’s Riverside Green. Eisler has paid huge attention to detail so that the piece – assembled on-site with 2000-odd native plants across 10 species – is robust enough to withstand the elements.
Hiding in plain sight amid the urban landscape of South Bank is artist Jennifer Herd’s large-scale work, marrying camouflage and rainforest shield patterns of the Bama people of North Queensland.
“Both refer to forms of protection, disguise and defence,” says Younger. “The title Amplify/Defy refers to the concealed histories of conflict in colonisation and frontier warfare, and the ongoing silencing of Aboriginal perspectives in Australian history. Jennifer's one of the initiators of the Queensland-based Aboriginal Arts Collective, who are a very important First Nations group of artists.”
Herd will also join artist Dylan Sarra in conversation with Vernon Ah Kee about their Curiocity artwork and Indigenous culture on March 25.
Kinetic artist Ross Manning has created a giant curved wall, installed on the Little Stanley Street Lawns, coated with fine silts that filter out frequencies of light. It’s when you enter the frame that things get really interesting.
“Ross is highlighting a certain quality of refraction common in butterfly wings, bird feathers and opals,” says Younger. “They have this iridescent, shimmering quality. People will be interacting with that when they go close to the parabola, and all the colours will shift and change around them.”
Germany-based duo Katrin Hochschuh and Adam Donovan work at the intersection of art, science and technology. Their robots run to an algorithm called Boids, created by Craig Reynolds in 1986, which simulates the flocking behaviour of birds. Encountering a swarm of 15 hexapod robots is an intimidating prospect, no matter what its intentions – there’s something very Black Mirror about these thigh-high critters.
“They’ve got cameras so that they can see the humans and they've also got directional sound capabilities, which is like their voice,” Younger says. “The robots are creating a sound-field above people’s heads and it makes an otherworldly pulsing effect in the air.”
That sound might swell or retreat as the robots approach or scatter upon human presence – we don’t yet know how they’ll respond exactly. The question the artists are asking is “Do we want a swarm of robots to treat us with empathy, or to regard us as an optimisation target?”
Curiocity Brisbane runs from March 22 to April 2.
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Tourism Events Queensland.