Announcing: “Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI” at the de Young Museum

On view: February 22 - October 25, 2020

de Young Museum; San Francisco, CA, Jan. 16, 2020 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- What are the invisible mechanisms of current forms of artificial intelligence (AI)? How is AI impacting our personal lives and socioeconomic spheres? How do we define intelligence? How do we envision the future of humanity?

As technological innovation continues to shape our identities and societies, the question of what it means to be, or remain human has become the subject of fervent debate. Taking advantage of the de Young museum’s proximity to Silicon Valley, Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI arrives as the first major exhibition in the US to explore the relationship between humans and intelligent machines through an artistic lens. Organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, with San Francisco as its sole venue, Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI will be on view from February 22 to October 25, 2020.

“Technology is changing our world, with artificial intelligence both a new frontier of possibility but also a development fraught with anxiety,” says Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI brings artistic exploration of this tension to the ground zero of emerging technology, raising challenging questions about the future interface of human and machine.”

The exhibition, which extends through the first floor of the de Young and into the museum’s sculpture garden, will explore the current juncture through philosophical, political, and poetic questions and problems raised by AI. New and recent works by an intergenerational, international group of artists and activist collectives—including Zach Blas, Ian Cheng, Simon Denny, Stephanie Dinkins, Forensic Architecture, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Pierre Huyghe, Christopher Kulendran Thomas in collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann, Agnieszka Kurant, Lawrence Lek, Trevor Paglen, Hito Steyerl, and Martine Syms—will be presented.

The Uncanny Valley
In 1970 Japanese engineer Masahiro Mori introduced the concept of the “uncanny valley” as a terrain of existential uncertainty that humans experience when confronted with autonomous machines that mimic their physical and mental properties. An enduring metaphor for the uneasy relationship between human beings and lifelike robots or thinking machines, the uncanny valley and its edges have captured the popular imagination ever since. Over time, the rapid growth and affordability of computers, cloud infrastructure, online search engines, and data sets have fueled developments in machine learning that fundamentally alter our modes of existence, giving rise to a newly expanded uncanny valley.

“As our lives are increasingly organized and shaped by algorithms that track, collect, evaluate, and monetize our data, the uncanny valley has grown to encompass the invisible mechanisms of behavioral engineering and automation,” says Claudia Schmuckli, Curator in Charge of Contemporary Art and Programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “By paying close attention to the imminent and nuanced realities of AI’s possibilities and pitfalls, the artists in the exhibition seek to thicken the discourse around AI. Although fables like HBO’s sci-fi drama Westworld, or Spike Jonze’s feature film Her still populate the collective imagination with dystopian visions of a mechanized future, the artists in this exhibition treat such fictions as relics of a humanist tradition that has little relevance today.”

In Detail
Nestled within the museum’s garden, Pierre Huyghe presents Exomind (Deep Water), a sculpture of a crouched female nude with a live beehive as its head. With its buzzing colony pollinating the surrounding flora, it offers a poignant metaphor for the modeling of neural networks on the biological brain and an understanding of intelligence as grounded in natural forms and processes.

In the museum’s contemporary art galleries, Ian Cheng’s digitally simulated AI creature BOB (Bag of Beliefs) also reflects on the interdependency of carbon and silicon forms of intelligence. An algorithmic Tamagotchi, it is capable of evolution, but its growth, behavior, and personality are molded by online interaction with visitors who assume collective responsibility for its wellbeing. In A.A.I. (artificial artificial intelligence), an installation of multiple termite mounds of colored sand, gold, glitter and crystals, Agnieszka Kurant offers a vibrant critique of new AI economies, with online crowdsourcing marketplace platforms employing invisible armies of human labor at sub-minimum wages. Simon Denny also examines the intersection of labor, resources, and automation. Presenting 3-D prints and a cage-like sculpture based on an unrealized machine patent filed by Amazon, he literally casts human labor as the proverbial canary in the mine.

Hito Steyerl addresses the political risks of introducing machine learning into the social sphere. Her installation The City of Broken Windows presents a collision between commercial applications of AI in urban planning along with communal and artistic acts of resistance against neighborhood tipping: one of its short films depicts a group of technicians purposefully smashing windows to teach an algorithm how to recognize the sound of breaking glass, and another follows a group of activists through the South Side of Chicago as they work to keep decay at bay by replacing broken windows in abandoned homes with paintings. 

A series of video works addresses and resists the perpetuation of societal bias and discrimination within AI. Trevor Paglen’s From Apple to Anomaly assembles thousands of training images according to their categorization in ImageNet, one of the largest visual data training sets used for image recognition, and reveals AI’s hidden reliance on human labor and biases that are built into the system, undermining neutrality. Lynn Hershman Leeson’s new installation Shadow Stalker critiques the problematic reliance on algorithmic systems, such as the military forecasting tool Predpol now widely used for policing, that categorize individuals into preexisting and often false “embodied metrics.”

Stephanie Dinkins extends the inquiry into how value systems are built into AI and the construction of identity in Conversations with Bina48, examining the social robot’s (and by extension our society’s) coding of technology, race, gender and social equity. In the same territory, Martine Syms posits AI as a “shamespace” for misrepresentation. For Mythiccbeing she has created an avatar of herself that viewers can interact with through text messaging. But unlike service agents such as Siri and Alexa, who readily respond to questions and demands, Syms’s Mythiccbeing is a contrarious interlocutor, turning each interaction into an opportunity to voice personal observations and frustrations about racial inequality and social injustice.

Countering the abusive potential of machine learning, Forensic Architecture will pioneer their application to the pursuit of social justice. Their proposition of a Model Zoo marks the beginnings of a new research tool for civil society built of military vehicles, missile fragments, and bomb clouds—evidence of human-rights violations by states and militaries around the world. Christopher Kulendran Thomas’s and Annika Kuhlmann’s video Ground Zero poses the philosophical question of what it means to be human when machines are able to synthesize human understanding ever more convincingly. Set against the violent background of ethnic cleansing in Sri Lanka and the subsequent emergence of a contemporary art market, it employs AI-generated characters of singer Taylor Swift and business man Oscar Munoz to reflect on issues of individual authenticity, collective sovereignty, and the future of human rights.

Lawrence Lek’s sci-fi-inflected film Aidol, which explores the relationship between algorithmic automation and human creativity, projects this question into the future. It transports the viewer into the computer-generated “sinofuturist” world of the 2065 eSports Olympics: when the popular singer Diva enlists the super-intelligent Geomancer to help her stage her artistic comeback during the game’s halftime show, she unleashes an existential and philosophical battle that explodes the divide between humans and machines.

The Doors, a newly commissioned installation by Zach Blas, by contrast shines the spotlight back onto the present and on the culture and ethos of Silicon Valley as ground zero for the development of AI. Inspired by the ubiquity of enclosed gardens on tech campuses, he has created an artificial garden framed by a six-channel video projected on glass panes that convey a sense of algorithmic psychedelia aiming to open new “doors of perception.” While luring visitors into AI’s promises, it also asks what might become possible when such glass doors begin to crack. 

Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI is organized by Claudia Schmuckli, Curator in Charge of Contemporary Art and Programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

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Artists in Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI

  • Zach Blas, b. 1981, Point Pleasant, West Virginia. Lives in London.
  • Ian Cheng, b. 1984, Los Angeles. Lives in New York.
  • Simon Denny, b. 1982, Auckland. Lives in Berlin.
  • Stephanie Dinkins. Lives in Brooklyn.
  • Forensic Architecture, founded 2010, London.
  • Lynn Hershman Leeson, b. 1941, Cleveland. Lives in San Francisco.
  • Pierre Huyghe, b. 1962, Paris. Lives in New York.
  • Christopher Kulendran Thomas, b. 1979, London. Lives in London and Berlin.
  • Agnieszka Kurant, b. 1978, Lodz, Poland. Lives in New York City.
  • Lawrence Lek, b. 1982, Frankfurt. Lives in London. 
  • Trevor Paglen, b. 1974, Camp Springs, Maryland. Lives in Berlin. 
  • Hito Steyerl, b. 1966, Munich. Lives in Berlin.
  • Martine Syms, b. 1988, Los Angeles. Lives in Los Angeles.

Uncanny Valley Exhibition Catalogue
Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI will be accompanied by an illustrated 225-page catalogue. Edited by exhibition curator Claudia Schmuckli, it will feature contributions by participating artists in addition to select philosophers, anthropologists, cultural theorists, sociologists, and engineers who offer a crisp and sophisticated understanding of the issues at stake. 

Contemporary Art at the de Young
Overseen by Claudia Schmuckli, the Museums’ Contemporary Art Program launched in 2016 to present the work of living artists in dialogue with the Museums’ unique buildings and permanent collections. In the program’s first three years, installations by Carsten Nicolai / Alva Noto, Hilary Lloyd, Leonardo Drew, DIS, Ranu Mukherjee, and Matt Mullican transformed the de Young’s Wilsey Court. At the Legion of Honor, Urs Fischer, Sarah Lucas, Lynn Hershman Leeson, and Julian Schnabel each presented exhibitions in dialogue with the Beaux-Arts building and the collection of works by Auguste Rodin. The latest contemporary art exhibition Alexandre Singh: A Gothic Tale will be on view through April 12, 2020.

Visiting de Young
de Young, Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco. Open Tuesdays–Sundays, 9:30 am–5:15 pm. Open select holidays; closed most Mondays. More information can be found at

Exhibition Organization
Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Presenting Sponsor: Lisa & Douglas Goldman Fund. Lead Support: The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and Paul Wattis. Major Support: Deutsche Bank and The Carl & Marilynn Thoma Art Foundation. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s Contemporary Arts Program is made possible by Presenting Sponsor the Lisa & Douglas Goldman Fund. Major support is provided by Nion McEvoy and Leslie Berriman and The Paul L. Wattis Foundation. Additional support is provided by Kate Harbin Clammer and Adam Clammer, Jessica and Jason Moment, Katie Schwab Paige and Matt Paige, Rotasa Fund, Chara Schreyer, David and Roxanne Soward, Joachim and Nancy Hellman Bechtle, Jeffrey N. Dauber and Marc A. Levin, Mr. Joshua Elkes–The Elkes Foundation, Shaari Ergas, Richard and Peggy Greenfield, Katie Hagey & Jill Hagey in memory of their mother, Mary Beth Hagey, Kaitlyn and Mike Krieger, Fred Levin and Nancy Livingston–The Shenson Foundation, Lore Harp McGovern, Mr. and Mrs. Charles R. Schwab, Gwynned Vitello, Vance Wall Foundation, Zlot Buell + Associates, and the Contemporary Support Council of the Fine Arts Museums. 

The exhibition catalogue is published with the assistance of The Carl & Marilynn Thoma Art Foundation.

About the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco 
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco oversee the de Young, located in Golden Gate Park, and the Legion of Honor, in Lincoln Park. It is the largest public arts institution in San Francisco and one of the most visited arts institutions in the United States. The de Young was established in 1895 and later renamed in honor of Michael H. de Young, who spearheaded its creation. The copper-clad landmark building, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, opened in 2005 with an observation level offering breathtaking 360-degree views of San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean. Reflecting a conversation among cultures, perspectives, and time periods, the collections at the de Young include American painting, sculpture, and decorative arts; arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas; costume and textile arts; and modern and contemporary art.


Ian Cheng
Installation view: "BOB", Central Pavilion, Giardini, Venice Biennale, Venice, 2019
Copyright Ian Cheng
Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels
Photography by: Andrea Rossetti Installation view: Martine Syms, Grand Calme, Sadie Coles HQ, London, 06 September – 20 October 2018
Copyright Martine Syms, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London
Photography: Robert Glowacki

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