By Claire Zakiewicz
It’s Art Night in Venice and I had planned to do a performance and to continue work on the photography project with Mark Edward Smith. Plans change for reasons not worth mentioning. I reschedule my trip and stay in London this week. As it happens, it’s not only Art Night in Venice but also London has Art Night all night across Walthamstow and Kings Cross.
Art Night in London has an impressive programme of events and exhibits including an outdoor public commission by Barbara Kruger, a bingo and live-music night in Walthamstow social club by Oscar Murillo, a virtual reality piece by Marina Abramovic and a late night Gagosian gallery opening with work by Michael Craig-Martin. My friend Libby Heaney is exhibiting her work Top of the Bots at The Star of Kings, a pub on York Way, Kings Cross, which has a vibrant young creative vibe.
Libby Heaney has followed an unusual path towards becoming one of London’s most exciting artists working today. A quantum physicist with a background in quantum computing, Heaney has now focused her practice on contemporary art projects. She is a philosophical cyber tech geek who can make aspects of the weird world of quantum visually compelling and virtually tangible to a layman like me.
Her recent work explores artificial intelligence, but also very human moments of solidarity – a collected drama, pride, tolerance and laughter.
Her exhibit is in a hidden room, which she has set up for a participatory experience – simulation Karaoke. On arrival at the pub, we sign up to the next available group, are given a sticker with our start time and get a drink from the bar while waiting. When our time comes we are escorted by a drag queen in groups of about 10 to the hidden room up the stairs and along the corridor – there, Libby Heaney sits behind a huge computer table like a mad professor and we are welcomed by a MC/host with a gift for gags. The MC asks for a volunteer to sing a spice girls song and a group of four are keen to be Baby Spice and to sing Wannabe all together. ‘A bountiful babble of Baby Spices’ the compare announces. He questions the volunteers about their choice. Heaney’s work always addresses issues of class and the MC steers the discussion towards possible problem issues of the spice girls. For example, is it OK to call the black Spice Girl Scary Spice now? As they go up to the microphone the others in the room gasp as they see Baby Spices face appear on the screen simulating perfectly the expression of the women by the microphone. A few other Baby Spices appear behind the first one – mirroring perfectly the facial movements of the singers. Libby explains in her statement ‘The Spice Girl on the screen was created by a live GAN, which was trained on thousands of pictures of the Spice Girl and then matched these to the participants face via the web cam. GAN images (especially live fairly lo-res ones) have a painterly fluid feel, which meant new expressions of the Spice Girl would emerge and decay.
The most striking aspects of the exhibit was the fun atmosphere. It funny, emotional and the technology was dazzling. A combination of high level fun, almost futuristic AI and deep philosophical thinking is rare to find.
Ultimately Heaney’s practice is concerned with the future (positive) impacts of new technologies. With this project Libby is aiming to question how AI can be programmed to dismantle stereotypical conceptions of identity and reconstruct them into strange new forms.
After the event is over I manage to catch the artist for a short interview:
CZ: Can you tell me about the process of making the work? How many hours of programming was it and what was involved?
LH: I use neural networks, which is a type of machine learning. I basically use facial recognition that looks at the facial structure of each Spice Girl. For example I take Baby Spice – Emma Bunton and I give it loads of frames/stills of Emma Bunton. When a participant looks into the webcam it also maps their face structure. It renders the face shape to Emma Bunton. It’s learning how to see Emma Bunton in other faces. Because it’s live it’s low res – even though I have a huge, hardcore computer. It took lots of hours to do the programming. The longest bits are the data sets and training the computer to be able to recreate it in real time. That’s the hardest part – and getting the images. You have to get the right data sets to make them look good
CZ: Tell me about the musical choice. Why the Spice Girls?
LH: I wanted to bring out issues of class, gender and race. As the Spice Girls have 5 different members which the participants can choose from and many different songs. I wanted to explore why people choose a particular spice girl and song. The MC was also trying to bring out these questions. The Spice Girls are the biggest selling girl band in the world – why?
CZ: You work is work is very intellectual, both philosophically and also technically but also really fun. Have you ever used Karaoke in your work before?
LH: I grew up in Tamworth near Birmingham. In my Dad’s pub they had Karaoke three times a week. I often wonder what is means to come from white working class Tamworth and come to London to be an artist. I don’t feel like a typical artist but maybe nobody does.
Through everything there is a lot of quantum thinking. I try to make it accessible. It’s fun but then participants can go into the deeper stuff afterwards if they want to. A lot of my work uses humour. I don’t want people to be hit with a library. Come back for more and the deeper questions to come out over time!
CZ: You quote Freya Jarman in your statement about the exhibit. “In moments of identifying with voices, we are seeking to relive the moment of loss, and to ritualise it’.
LH: Yes, all my work is quite conceptual and about systems and relations.: The quote comes from the book Queer Voices – she’s a musicologist, and she talks about the voice and how the voice is a site where queer identities can emerge. She’s referring to Freud’s uncanny and how it can relate to sexual identity – she takes a more expanded definition of queer. Singing is a site where things such as individual or collective identities can emerge – beyond standard identity categories. We partly associate with the voice but partly push against it. Through and against the voice, and by doing that you get alternative expressions of identity.
The project is arts council funded and will be exhibited at Birmingham Open Media in November, 2019