It is not often that you are able to say that an artwork is viewing you just as you are viewing it. Zwischenräume, which translates to ‘the space in between’, is a collaborative installation by Petra Gemeinboeck and Rob Saunders. It is not the clean-cut, ultramodern work that you would expect of most artworks being displayed at the 2012 New Media Art Awards exhibition. The work’s messy, damaged and downright violent appearance provides an eerie glimpse of a potential future within the gallery space. Encountering the shattered plasterboard which litters the space surrounding the installation, caused by a group of autonomous robots featured in the work, is certainly startling, especially when viewed alongside the distinctive neon lights and fragile machinery of other artworks in the exhibition. Saunders and Gemeinboeck’s primitive-looking robots have been installed behind a wall of the gallery with the ability to observe and destroy their environment as well as communicate with one another. Each machine has been equipped with a hammer to punch holes in the wall so that they are able to see into the outside world, using cameras as eyes, to alleviate their own boredom. Similar to many human endeavours, the machines’ work, while violent and destructive in nature, is rewarded by knowledge. This confronting and intimidating installation highlights the ways in which the technological revolution is changing the social fabric of our world and questions what the future holds for the human-artificial intelligence relationship.
It is an undeniable fact that the evolution of technology and artificial intelligence over the past sixty years has irreversibly changed our way of life. In Zwischenräume, Gemeinboeck and Saunders explore the ways in which we are able to adjust ourselves to a changing environment to suit our needs, much like technology and modern medicine have been evolved to suit the changing needs of society. The work refers to the Battle of Nablus fought in the West Bank in 2002 as part of operation ‘Defensive Shield’ in which Israeli Defence Force (IDF) paratroopers blew through private house walls instead of using doors and alleyways, as these were booby-trapped by Palestinian soldiers (Jewish Virtual Library, 2012). Aviv Kokhavi, commander of the IDF Paratrooper brigade stated that
Because it was the first time that this method was performed [on such a scale], during the action itself we were learning how to adjust ourselves to the relevant urban space, and similarly how to adjust the relevant urban space to our needs (Weizman, 2005).
Similarly, the robots in Zwischenräume change and re-sculpt the unfamiliar environment they have been put into—the gallery. They have learnt to adjust themselves to the relevant space by observing and, equally, adjusting the relevant space to suit their needs. The robots break through the gallery walls just as the paratroopers broke through the private walls of Nablus in order to achieve an ultimate goal. In the process, the structure is destroyed beyond repair. So, the artwork questions whether the marking and wounding of our environment in the pursuit of technological or intellectual advances is really beneficial to society. As new technologies are advancing at such a rapid pace, the lines have been blurred in regards to how far is too far to take and use artificial intelligence. Even though it is an effective tool in benefitting society, it could just as easily be used to destroy it.
Zwischenräume also comments on how, along with the integration of artificial intelligence into society comes the ever-increasing monitoring of our daily lives, infringing on people’s privacy more and more. For instance, social networking sites are able to tailor their advertising to each user by accounting for pages that they or many of their friends have liked; and when viewing websites on a mobile phone, a site can present advertisements based on the user’s geographical location (Casimir, 2010). The robots in Zwischenräume have similar capabilities, being able to observe and perceive their viewer through cameras. In fact, they almost go out of their way, knocking down walls, in order to see what we are doing, reflective of changes in our society. Most of us live online and the knowledge that companies and governments are watching our every move on the internet can make a lot of people, even those with nothing to hide, feel uncomfortable. Gemeinboeck and Saunders’s robots observe constantly, never resting but just collecting information, much like internet sites are able to do in the modern age. In this way, the work explores how artificial intelligence is being used within our society in a more public sense while also exploring the limits of personal privacy in the 21st century.
Our relationship with increasingly intelligent machinery is, and will be for a long time, changing and evolving as we begin to understand the potential in new technologies for both good and evil. Zwischenräume tells us that we are at the ‘in between’ stage—on the brink of a technological revolution. In the words of the artists, Zwischenräume explores the ‘anatomical trauma of a machine augmented environment and its performative potential’ (Gemeinboeck & Saunders, 2010). By looking at how technology has changed, the problems we have faced so far, and the extraordinary changes it has made to our lives and our society, Zwischenräume questions the future by bringing our present relationship with artificial intelligence to light.
Petra Gemeinboeck and Rob Saunders, Zwischenräume (installation view, detail), 2010-12. Robotics, electronics, custom artificial intelligence software, aluminium, steel, wood, plasterboard, installed dimensions variable. Courtesy the artists.
Casimir, J., ‘Mobile-marketing’, 2010, in J. Casimir, The Gruen Transfer, Harper Collins, pp.70-71. Gemeinboeck, P., & Saunders, R., Zwischenräume, 2010. Retrieved 29 September, 2012, from Robococo.net: http://www.robococo.net/text_e.html GoMA, ‘Petra Gemeinboeck & Rob Saunders’, 2012. Retrieved 29 September, 2012, from QAGOMA: http://qagoma.qld.gov.au/exhibitions/current/national_new_media_art_awar...
Jewish Virtual Library, ‘Operation “Defensive Shield”’, 2012. Retrieved 27 September, 2012, from Jewish Virtual Library: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/defensiveshield.html... Weizman, E., ‘Walking through walls: Soldiers as architects in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict’, 2005. Retrieved 27 September, 2012, from Public Space: http://www.publicspace.org/en/text-library/eng/b018-walking-through-wall...
Image page 13. Petra Gemeinboeck and Rob Saunders, Zwischenräume (installation view, detail), 2010-12. Robotics, electronics, custom artificial intelligence software, aluminium, steel, wood, plasterboard, installed dimensions variable. Courtesy the artists.