A muse generated by artificial intelligence as the model for an oil painting; a zero-gravity environment to challenge our senses of sight and hearing; an giant emoji to express a collective feeling in a specific part of the city. These are just some of the projects which the inquisitive Catalan scientist Albert Barqué-Duran has created in recent years in his efforts to combine academia, art and technology, and through the cities where he lives: Barcelona, London and Berlin. A We are Europe 2019 activist, Barqué-Duran attended the latest edition of Sónar as a spectator and this was our conversation about his work in motion.
Although he has just turned 30, entering a new decade has done nothing to detract from his appearance as a young, long-haired university lecturer with round glasses and a thin beard in a digital environment where people tend to be slaves to fashion. Flouting convention, the scientist-artist delves into the interstices he so clearly revels in to come up with works that continue to defy easy classification: new media art? Digital art? Artificial creativity?
Barque-Duran did postgraduate research at City, University of London and Harvard University, Cambridge in cognitive science, an interdisciplinary field that embraces psychology, neurology, linguistics and, increasingly, technology. However, as a teenager in the small town of Mollerussa, in Lleida province, he took courses in painting and sculpture and therefore has some training in the fine arts. This amalgam first started to come together in his illustrated articles Neurocapsules, published in the newspaper El periódico de Catalunya between 2013 and 2015, where he drew on surrealism to express his theories. Masters like Dalí provided him with the inspiration to reflect on the workings of the brain following the advent of computers and the internet.
It is precisely to avoid being locked away within four illustrious walls, now that he is an honorary research fellow at City, University of London, that he also teaches at the Lacuna Lab in Berlin, a laboratory of ideas located in the alternative Kreuzberg quarter, and this year he is running a course in creative technologies – the first of its kind in Spain – at Universitat de Lleida.
During his doctorate, Barqué-Duran came into contact with Creative Reactions at the University of London, a gathering of more veteran academics who have long been facilitating pathways between science and art in a field known as computational creativity. This gave rise in 2016 to Albert vs. Machine, in which Barqué-Duran pitted his creative skills against a machine dubbed The Painting Fool, which he had devised with Professor Simon Colton. The aim was to find out which of the two — human or computer program — was the better painter.
“The project made a lot of sense during the months it was up and running, but when it ended we realised that it was not the path to follow,” confesses the protagonist himself. “In other words, the fact of prompting a battle between man and machine. What motivated me from an academic or research perspective, or as a straightforward artist, was not confrontation but rather finding synergies, a man-machine symbiosis to be able to produce performances or artworks that would be impossible otherwise.“
Thus began a close relationship between Barqué-Duran and the Sónar+D festival, as well as the scientist-artist’s growing international reputation. The first show was My Artificial Muse, in 2017. “The idea was to find out whether we could use a traditional, outdated concept like the inspirational muse to generate an artificial muse.” He developed that project with the German code and algorithm artist, Mario Klingemann, who created a neural network to enable artificial intelligence to project a naked body in two dimensions as a model. Over the course of the three-day festival, Barqué-Duran made an oil painting on a giant 4×2-metre canvas in front of visitors to a soundtrack composed by Marc Marzenit that was generated by the sensors attached to Barqué-Duran‘s body.
The chosen original was Ophelia, an 1851 painting by Sir John Everett Millais. Artificial intelligence imagined the abstract stretched-out body of a woman, the curious effect of which was to immerse the painter in expressionism. “The BBC called it a ‘milestone’, a paradigm shift in the history of art,” says the author.
A year later Barqué-Duran started exploring space, exhibiting at Sónar+D a marquee with a 12-metre diameter, 360 degrees and immersive sound which he called The Zero-Gravity Band. “We wanted to find out how aesthetic perceptions change in zero-gravity conditions – in other words, outside planet Earth; and also how artistic production itself, either musical or visual, changes in these conditions,” is how he summarises the intentions behind the project. “It was a very futuristic project in which the aim was to make us think about the potential cultural implications if we decide to live outside our planet.”
He developed the project with laboratories that recreate microgravity with parabolic flights, like the MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative in Boston. This is the place where the Chileans Nicole L’Huillier and Sands Fish devised The Telemetron, a musical instrument in the form of a clear, dodecahedron chamber containing electronic chimes that produce a vibrant rippling sound according to how the object is moved, but only in a zero-gravity environment.
During the seven-minute show inside the marquee, the sensations of weightlessness were induced with sound and visual stimulation. Those of us who took part reacted in different ways – apparently, some people vomited, but that was not my case. In fact, the project was all about working with what is known as the vestibular system, which is situated just behind the ears and regulates the sensations of verticality: standing up or lying down, or feeling dizzy.
“Just as we explored how zero gravity affected visual perceptions, now we wanted to see how it affected hearing and what type of music we’d like to listen to in a zero-gravity environment,” explains Barqué-Duran. For the musical aspects of the project, he once again turned to Marc Marzenit, a producer who straddles the classical and electronic registers and who also happens to be from the small town of Mollerussa.
Emojis and Control on the Internet
The virtual world of the internet is the source for Barqué-Duran‘s latest proposal, which explores emotions online through the reproduction of a giant emoticon like the Ultimate Emoji. It was presented at the last edition of the Mobile World Congress, in the Disseny Hub Barcelona. Courtesy of the memes department of Nokia Bell Labs in the USA, the project studied the emotions evoked in visitors to the design museum. This led to a 3D-printed emoji with a 1.5-metre diameter, which the scientist-artist painted live while composing a soundscape.
“In the digital world, you can’t beat a sculpture in the form of an emoji to express these emotions!” says the author. “It’s possible to imagine, as in a language system, how emojis evolve to match the biological system. Every day, we use some emojis more than others. On the genetic level, certain species become extinct, and the same thing can happen on a digital level. Some of the emojis that were created are disappearing, either through lack of use or because they don’t express emotions accurately. Others are mutating, like biological and genetic systems. They’re perpetuated when they’re passed on from one generation to the next.“
This brings to mind the longevity of the smiley that appeared with the acid house revolution. But having reached this point in the conversation, it’s time to take a look at the darker side of the AI revolution. Isn’t it the case that the GAFAM companies (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon), who control 80% of the traffic on the internet, are turning it into a new and improved form of capitalism by storing all our information and emotions?
“It’s a tug-of-war between the major institutions and users. Plus, there’s a tremendous bias, because it’s the major institutions that have the big data and can position themselves in levels of metadata that provide them with a much more global perspective of what’s happening. And, above all, how it’s happening. They’re able to code the emotions we express in the digital world. And, if you know what they are, you can use them from a purely capitalist point of view to maximise what you get from them.“
Barqué-Duran doesn’t avoid the issue, although he frames it on more conceptual level. It’s not so much the political implications that interest him but the individual ones. Although that doesn’t prevent him from admitting that he’s more pessimistic than optimistic and depending on the day.
Berlin versus London
Also depending on the city from where he’s looking. He’s currently spending more time in Berlin, but only temporarily. And surprisingly, he works with people everywhere except in Berlin. “What I’m about to say may sound a little controversial. The cultural scene in Berlin has surprised me enormously, but not necessarily in a positive way… I’ve grasped how this city, which I didn’t know, works on a cultural and artistic level, and it’s a good place on my European tour. Although the way I see it, there’s a lot of underground production but the quality isn’t very high. That may be a necessary condition. In all of that production, there’ll be a few diamonds that manage to stand out. Really powerful projects, meaningful ones, which then expand outwards and grow even more.“
So I ask him, is Berlin a type of laboratory? “It’s a very experimental city on a cultural level,” he admits. Then I probe him a little more about whether in London there’s less in terms of quantity but more quality. “Making a very simplistic comparison, yes. Let’s say that what London audiences engage with is usually more selective than what you find in Berlin. It’s passed through a lot more artistic filters.“
From the table in the bar where we’re having this conversation, on one of the floors of Sónar+D in the Montjuïc trade fair grounds, surrounded by engineers, computer experts, hacktivists, musicians and artists of all kinds and generations, the view of Europe is not too pessimistic, in spite of everything. Barqué-Duran is certainly working hard to ensure it isn’t.