Berlin’s second STATE Festival, which brings together leading scientists, innovators, social-scientists, artists and members of the public to explore one topic took place recently at Kühlhaus in Gleisdreieck. The topic in question was emotions.
Emotions are a fundamental part of being human, and our understanding of them not only illuminates our experiences and interactions but also raises important questions about our growing reliance on machines and the nature of Artificial Intelligence (AI).
We often think of emotions as immaterial and internal, but the festival demonstrated how physically palpable and measurable they are. Adam Anderson from Cornell University’s Department of Human Development and Human Neuroscience Institute talked about how our sight and emotions are linked. Emotions, like colour, are created by the visual regions of the brain and everything we see is affected by emotion.
The Festival’s screening of Stefan Sagmeister’s The Happy Film, in which the prominent designer embarks on a navel-gazing journey in the search of happiness confirmed the strong link between the body and emotion. Sagameister pursued happiness using three methods; meditation, therapy and drugs – and drugs was the most effective. The chemical changes they affected in his body made him deliriously happy to the point of falling in love and almost getting married within a matter of weeks.
The link between the emotion of love and physicality was put to the test at the festival’s interactive Sniff and Date session, in which participants did an aerobics session, captured their sweaty scent on a small patch of material, then sniffed out a potential partner. Although smelling numbered patches of sweat felt dubious, it worked! I matched with a lovely Romanian artist with whom I had a lot in common. Yes, it was a woman, who was there with her boyfriend, but it was nice to have a drink with her.
In such social situations, the hormone oxytocin plays a big role. It helps in social bonding, sexual reproduction, birth and nurturing as well as increasing the recognition and mimicry of facial emotions. Neuroscientist Sebastian Korb explained how he used electromyography (EMG) to detect facial mimicry which is so fast and subtle that it is difficult to inhibit. Facial mimicry is important to social interaction as it is key to feeling empathy (therefore procedures such as Botox, which restrict people’s facial movements, impact their ability to empathise).
As we become more dependent on technology, the ability of machines to understand and respond to our emotions will become more important. The Android game Emotion Hero demonstrated what computer recognition of facial emotion could look like. Naturally, this led to questions about whether machines would eventually be able to experience emotions themselves and what the implications of this would be.
If machines could feel, would they be granted the same rights as people? As it stands, scientists use the human brain as a model to make intelligent, self-learning robots. Of course, companies like Nvidia, Google and Intel are nowhere near creating something as powerful as the brain with its 100 billion neurones and 250 billion synapses, but the possibility is on the distant horizon. Toby Walsh, one of the world’s leading experts on AI, said he did not think the Singularity – the point where robots overtake humans – was coming any time soon.
Still, the warnings of prominent people such as Stephen Hawking, who said AI “could spell the end of the human race” and Elon Musk, who compared developing AI to “summoning the demon” were at the forefront of many discussions. Clearly, AI and its implications must be thought about. In fact, people are already thinking about it, but they belong to an elite with commercial interests. For example, those developing the self-driving car are already making ethical decisions such as who the car should kill or injure in certain crash situations.
One of the most interesting interactive sessions was the critical thinking workshop AI Ethics and Prosthetics run by Marco Donnarumma, an artist who explores human-machine corporeality. The conversation took interesting turns, exploring questions from “Would you live with an autonomous prosthesis?” to “Where does the fault lie if a machine is responsible for killing a human?” The conversation raised more questions than answers, highlighting the complex nature of this crucial time in human history.
What was unique and fulfilling about this festival was how it hit all senses – with music, sound, visual art, films, talks, discussions and physical activities. It stimulated anxiety about a machine-filled future, passionate debate, and joy at the meeting fascinating minds – an important, emotional experience.
Jesse Günther plies a molten blob on the end of a red-hot pipe, turning it this way and that as he tugs out a shape. Within minutes, he has created a glass figurine of a graceful, long-tailed horse, which he taps off the end of the pipe with a clink.
We are at the Berlin Glas e.V., a non-profit association that offers glass making courses and opportunities for students, refugees and artists. Their studio is located in the complex of an old brandy factory in north Berlin. Jesse adds his figurine to a crowded shelf of glass objects and mythical-looking creatures. He likes working with glass because it’s collaborative and challenging.
I had never really thought much about glass or how it was made before going to the 3-hour introductory workshop, so I’m not sure what I was expecting, but one thing is right: It is challenging. And hot. At the centre of the studio is a furnace that runs at over 1000 degrees celsius, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is only turned off for one month during the year, when everyone goes on holiday.
Powdery pellets of raw glass are thrown into the furnace, where it then sits in liquid form, waiting to be ‘gathered’, or spun onto the end of a hot pipe. Then, there is the ‘glory hole’, another furnace used to reheat pieces while you’re working on them, and finally the ‘lehr’, where the finished glass pieces slowly cool at around 500 degrees. Altogether, it’s hot work. I was on the course with a couple of blacksmiths, who seemed more used to working with such high temperatures.
Together, we attempted to make one paperweight and one glass each – a task that kept us all intensely occupied for the afternoon. There is a lot of be mindful of in the workshop: making sure you don’t burn someone with the 900 degree pipe you are wielding, making sure you don’t burn yourself, constantly spinning the pipe so the molten glass does not just drop off it (I lost a paperweight in the glory hole because I stopped spinning the pipe for a couple of seconds), getting a feel for how malleable the glass is – a quality that is constantly changing as the glass cools – while twisting, shaping, blowing, plying and re-heating…
The workshop certainly gives you a new appreciation for glass, ensuring you’ll never look at it the same way. They say the strongest steel as forged in the hottest fire, but glass is forged at the same temperatures and can turn out to be brittle or strong, with certain qualities, like air bubbles and colours, not fully visible until the glass has cooled, giving it a certain unpredictability and nuance. So, after a week of cooling, how did my pieces turn out?
As you can see, the glass didn’t really turn out to be a glass – not even a vase, which was my next aim. Maybe I can claim it’s simply a piece of art – after all, as well as being collaborative and challenging, glass-making is also creative and beautiful.
It is rumoured that Boris Lurie’s No!art movement got its name when a woman entered an exhibition on 10th street in New York, looked his Railroad to America collage (below), and ran out screaming “No! No! No!”
Whether or not that story is apocryphal, the art of Boris Lurie is indeed provocative. Interestingly, he was very much against Warhol and the pop art movement, which also sought to be political and provocative. Perhaps this is because pop art lacks the harrowing depth of Lurie’s work.
This fresh, visceral quality is probably due to the fact that Boris Lurie, who grew up in Riga, was interned by the Nazis at Buchenwald and other concentration camps. His art is particularly Jewish – a visual and textual attempt to express a European Jewish experience. It seems apt, therefore, that the largest exhibition of his work – including pieces that have never been shown before – is now on at the Jewish Museum Berlin.
The retrospective presents an over-arching view of Lurie’s œuvre, consisting of over 200 collages, drawings, paintings, texts and sculptures, as well as documentary videos about the artist. His vast body of work grapples with a number of subjects, from modern American society and politics, to concentration camps and depictions of women. Most impactful are his collages, combining photos of the Holocaust with pin-up photos from American magazines.
Perhaps the best sum up of the exhibition is the welcoming text at its entrance, by Lurie himself: If your eyes and mind serve you well, you will see something new. You will find no secret languages here, no fancy escapes, no hushed, muted silences, no messages beamed at exclusive audiences. Art is a tool of influence and urging. We want to talk, to shout, so that everybody can understand. Our only master is truth.
There’s no place like time is an art exhibition with a twist. It’s a retrospective of the work of video artist Alana Olsen, curated by her daughter Aila, who lives in Berlin. So far, so good. It’s only when you look at the exhibition brochure, dated December 2018, that you realise something is awry.
Printing error? No. The video artist Alana Olsen and her daughter Alia are actually characters out of Lance Olsen’s novel Theories of Forgetting. We are looking at the work of a fictive artist, curated by her fictive daughter. Olsen’s book has spiraled out of its binding and into our reality, or perhaps we have circled into its fictionality, becoming characters ourselves.
The exhibition is, in reality, a collaboration between author Lance Olsen and video artist Andi Olsen. Between them, they have brought the spirit of the fictive artist alive as well as her daughter’s attempt to put the pieces of her mother’s life together to try to grasp her and stop her spiraling away into oblivion.
The themes of time, place, deterioration and winding down run through the exhibition – themes which are also important to the novel. Lance Olsen’s creation can be seen as a spiral itself – first inspired by Robert Smithson’s famous earthwork The Spiral Jetty (above), the novel has unconventional page-layouts and two back covers so you can start from either end, it has now spun back out into a physical space and collaboration with a visual artist once more.
An immersive, multi-dimensional and unique approach to art, which people can delve into in many different ways.