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Adaptation and Performative Installation: A Glimpse into the Work of Sougwen Chung

Blending body and machine, material and immaterial, Sougwen Chung pulls purpose and direction from her experiences as a musician, artist, and software developer. Chung is a multi-media artist whose research and work demonstrate the potentialities for human-robotic collaboration and reciprocal influence. Through her research and work she develops robotic arms capable of painting with her and she often performs alongside her machine co-creators in the presence of a live audience. Amongst many areas of study, her research practices include codifying her artistic style, communicating with her robotic creations, and adapting to their processes.


Sougwen Chung, Exquisite Corpus. Source.


From early on Sougwen Chung had a love for violin and for painting, interests that eventually blossomed into her interdisciplinary practice [1]. While she enjoys the potential that technology provides, she still finds joy in the materiality of painting. She explains that in her studio there are all the remnants of “material mess” alongside “robotics, intangible codes, and deep learning”[2]. She believes that it is possible to simultaneously occupy a number of artistic spaces and mediums, stating that, “one can engage in technologies without feeling necessarily like they are losing some inherent spirit of their practice”[3].


Navigating this balance constitutes the heart of her practice and inspires how she chooses to document and share her work. Meanwhile, the use of performance in Chung’s research and exhibition practices creates space for an organic flow between human and machine that defies the artificial pressures of completion or perfection.


Sougwen Chung, Artifact No 1. Source.


Interdisciplinary Methodology


As a principle, Chung prefers to regularly change her processes and often likes to “fuse” together or create “custom” tools suited for each individual project [4]. Part of what drives this change is a desire to not “get stuck on any mode of creation”[5]. Through her work she negotiates a relationship between growth and consistency. Meanwhile her proclivity for adaptation inspires innovation and interconnection within her practice.


She persistently seeks out opportunities to develop her ideas alongside organizations and institutions, a strategy which further enables her to expand on and implement her projects. She states that Bell Labs, in particular, is where many of her ideas came together since she was “able to take the divergent influences, ideas, and prototypes […] and reflect on them in the quiet space of my studio” [6]. One particular idea that she focused on during that time was what people would like for society to be like in a decade [7]. With that framework of futuristic thinking, Chung imagines what the future of art might look like and purposefully engages with the new and trending tools that will define humanity's trajectory.


This includes work with Augmented Reality, such as her piece Into the Light, and also includes NFTs. Chung thoughtfully approaches these technologies from the perspective of an artist. As a result, her NFTs are “certified with a Fair Trade Art Certificate,” proving that the money generated from any sales is “benefiting a charitable cause”[8]. Ethically participating in these activities allows her to learn more about their potential and also sets a precedent for how to creatively and positively participate in these trends.


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D.O.U.G.


While Chung uses a variety of tools and methods in her practice, for a number of years now she has consistently developed and worked with DOUG, an acronym that stands for “Drawing Operations Unit”[9]. These intricate robotic arms are her frequent “collaborators,” capable of observing her and working alongside Chung [10]. Initially they included a camera, code to breakdown and process data from the camera, and the robotic and software systems needed to participate in the creation of artwork [11].


All together, the first iteration of DOUG could watch Chung paint and follow along with similar actions, mirroring the processes and style with which she painted [12]. Since then, Chung has continued to create new versions of DOUG, adding up to a total of about two dozen units, all trained on images of decades worth of her drawings and guided by recurrent neural networks [13].


Newer versions of DOUG are even able to read her brain-wave activity and act accordingly, further connecting Chung and her robots through a “shared bank of knowledge, and through live, in-the-moment visual and movement cues”[14]. As Chung explains, their relationship is “more of a call-and-response” and is about the “feedback loop” in their interactions [15].


The overarching goal for her longstanding development of DOUG is to discover whether DOUG can eventually manage to produce art independently [16]. Chung also considers the robotic arms themselves to be a form of tangible art, “a kind of kinetic sculpture"[17]. While extremely generative and thrilling, the work of developing DOUG continues to challenge and transform Chung since it is, as she describes, “a process of negotiation, wayfinding, and tension”[18].


Sougwen Chung, Chiaroscuro. Source.


Performative Installation


Like her research and disciplinary methods, the outcome and exhibition of her work spans a variety of forms. While her paintings are standalone pieces with depth and aesthetic weight, her installations and performances engage with an even greater range of ideas.


Chung states that, “I stumbled into my path,” in part through her experiences playing violin and the “rush of performance” that it awakened in her [19]. The spaces she creates are birthed and christened through performance as she “immerses” herself “into days of on-site improvisation”[20]. Adaptively responding to the space, she creates “performative architecture” that often reacts to or synthetically features music [21].


There is no precise moment where the exhibition has reached its fullest. Rather, it encompasses stages of movement and growth, shifting as the space demands. It is within settings like these that Chung performs with her robots, dancing in tandem and reacting to their shared environment while the audience observes.


The entire process is “quite ephemeral” and, consequently, is quite difficult to document; however, Chung finds that she can manage to capture the experience if she focuses on crafting “a narrative with the documentation"[22].


Sougwen Chung, Corpus VIII. Source.


Intersection of Human and Non-Human


Intertwined throughout the complexity and variety of Chung’s interdisciplinary practice is the theme of human-ness and machine-ness. She believes that experiences with robots and new technology create moments where “our human-ness is thrown into high relief”[23]. In order to emphasize on that dynamic, she has studied the intersection between body and machine, tradition and technology, and how a piece of artwork “transmutes between mediums. Shifting between the real to the virtual and back again”[24]. This fluctuation between realms of experience knits these worlds together into a synthetic and cohesive art form.


A particularly intriguing observation Chung made is that people tend to project “agency” onto AI [25]. She finds interest in our “capacity to anthropomorphize our relationship to machines” and points out how these relationships can become “a mirror for how we view ourselves”[26]. We tend to overlook our interactions with other humans, but when dealing with robotics and AI we have a propensity to become more aware of others and ourselves.


An example that Chung remembers clearly is when she failed to account for the physical properties of paint and how it would affect the mechanical movements of her robots. This error allowed her to observe how the “audience sympathizes with the robotic units in a humanizing moment of the fallibility of the machine”[27]. Failure and the process of learning are often treated as uniquely human traits and, consequently, make the robots feel more relatable to the audience.


Error and Growth


With any artwork based in engineering principles, there can be a tendency to pursue perfection and efficiency. However, this mindset directly negates some of the essential principles of art making, its open-endedness and subjectivity. This is where Chung’s work shines as she embraces the messiness of the process and the limitations that she faces.


Observing her robots, she notes that DOUG’s, “behavior could be quite silly and playful if there was an error. […] The more imperfect the line work is, the more it seems like it's expressing his style of drawing"[28]. As mentioned earlier, imperfection is humanizing and seems to animate the robots with an aura of life.


The sense of connection fostered by this feeling of familiarity illuminates the “potential generosity” of art that Chung believes in, which “necessarily evades definition, or legitimization” [29]. Many viewers of art expect static and finished pieces. There is an element of disconnect in this which artificially heightens the mystery of the work while estranging the viewer.


However, allowing the viewer to witness the metamorphosis of an artwork implicates them in the piece and merges vivid memory with the piece itself. To engage in this exchange is an intimate gift, an act of generosity that exceeds monetary value. Chung shares an experience with her audience, the permission to witness the process, the mistakes, and the adaptation. This is what she believes gives the work its value [30].


The errors not only draw the audience in, they also captivate Chung. She says that reacting and responding to the errors and mistakes makes, “the process uniquely stimulating. Thrilling, even. It feels more true to how life actually is, full of the encounter with unmediated moments that go wrong. Sometimes I think creativity is working with imperfections and mess, and seeing how one adapts to them.”[31]. The messiness inspires movement and change, which are essential to creativity and progress.


In more concise terms, the fallibility of the machines appeals to the viewers and provides Chung with a more complex and rewarding role in the development of the work. The challenge bolsters engagement and builds memory, rather than simply existing as something to be worked around, eliminated, or fixed.


Conclusion


Like Chung’s studio space demonstrates, her work intertwines a multitude of practices and disciplines, highlighting the potential for interconnectivity between humans and machines. Regarding predominant theories about AI, Chung explains how these narratives often foster “a very adversarial, power-driven dynamic with technology”[32]. Chung actively works to redefine these conceptions of AI by demonstrating what collaboration with a machine can look like, bringing DOUG into relationship with her viewers through performative installations. Ultimately, it is her willingness to organically adapt to technology that sets her apart as she views error as both a possibility for growth and as a gift to the audience.


 

Footnotes

[1] Marletta, 2016.

[2-3] Tan.

[4-5] Shin, 2018.

[6-7] AIArtists.org

[8] Verisart, 2021.

[9] Saini, 2015.

[10] Kaufman, 2020.

[11] Saini, 2015.

[12] Issues in Science and Technology, 2018.

[13-15] Kaufman, 2020.

[16] Saini, 2015.

[17-18] Tan.

[19] Kaufman, 2020.

[20] Marletta, 2016.

[21-22] Shin, 2018.

[23-24] Marletta, 2016.

[25-26] AIArtists.org

[27] Tan.

[28] Saini, 2015.

[29-31] Tan.

[32] Kaufman, 2020.


 

Bibliography


Kaufman, Sarah L. “Artist Sougwen Chung Wanted Collaborators. so She Designed and Built Her Own AI Robots.” The Washington Post. WP Company, November 5, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/11/05/ai-artificial-intelligence-art-sougwen-chung/.


Marletta, Donata. “Organic Forms and Digital Visions. an Interview with Sougwen Chung • Digicult: Digital Art, Design and Culture.” Digicult, February 9, 2016. http://digicult.it/news/organic-forms-and-digital-visions-an-interview-with-sougwen-chung/.


Saini, Shivam. “This Robotic Arm Draws Almost as Well as a Human Artist - Because It Sort of Is One.” Business Insider, July 29, 2015. https://www.businessinsider.com/robotic-arm-draws-by-mimicking-an-artists-movements-2015-7.


Shin, Nara. “Charged: Sougwen Chung.” COOL HUNTING®. COOL HUNTING®, August 24, 2018. https://coolhunting.com/culture/interview-sougwen-chung/.


“Sougwen Chung.” Issues in Science and Technology 35, no. 1 (2018).


“Sougwen Chung – Artist Profile (Photos, Videos, Exhibitions).” AIArtists.org. Accessed November 28, 2021. https://aiartists.org/sougwen-chung.


Tan, Ken. “On the Collaborative Space between Humans and Non-Humans.” Artist Sougwen Chung on the collaborative space between humans and non-humans – The Creative Independent. Accessed December 2, 2021. https://thecreativeindependent.com/people/artist-sougwen-chung-on-the-collaborative-space-between-humans-and-non-humans/.


Verisart. “Sougwen Chung: Human and Machine Collaboration.” Medium. Verisart, June 7, 2021. https://medium.com/verisart/sougwen-chung-human-and-machine-collaboration-72d912d6b065.


“Works by Sougwen.” Sougwen Chung (愫君). Accessed November 28, 2021. https://sougwen.com/.



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