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Japanese digital art exhibition explores AI risks in Shenzhen

Written by Nikkei Asia Published on   3 mins read

Rhizomatiks’ first solo China show pushes boundaries between the real and virtual.

Artist and engineer Daito Manabe has made a living out of manipulating technology for human enjoyment. A puppeteer of lighting, sound and robotics, his futuristic optical illusions have been featured in shows across the world, from Tokyo to Rio de Janeiro.

Manabe founded Rhizomatiks, a Japanese media art collective that has won multiple awards, in 2006 to explore the boundaries between technology and art. But almost 20 years on, he fears those boundaries are becoming too difficult to distinguish, and that his days as puppet master could be numbered.

“Some artists have already been affected by the evolution of technology and the rise of artificial intelligence, such as having their works imitated or used without permission,” Manabe told Nikkei Asia. “It’s essential to seriously consider the regulation of AI, because more challenges may emerge in the future,” he warned.

“The pace of technological advancement is very fast nowadays, and in some fields, a work created two weeks ago will already be out of date,” Manabe said, speaking over the low hum of ethereal music playing from his laptop in Rhizomatiks’ underground studio in Daikanyama, central Tokyo. “But with technological progress also comes new tools, and that’s quite exciting.”

This dichotomy between the risk posed by technology and its potential is the inspiration behind Manabe’s latest show, “Rhizomatiks Multiplex_2023,” held in Shenzhen. Rhizomatiks’ first solo Chinese exhibition, it is an updated version of the group’s 2021 “Multiplex” show at Tokyo’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The exhibition is centered around large-scale installations, many featuring robots and computers, that transform the gallery into a virtual world using geometric projections and colorful flashing lights.

The exhibition’s focus is “to give a glimpse behind the scenes [of art],” said Manabe. “By revealing the software that controls or generates the artworks, we can introduce the hidden side of technology.”

The exhibition’s standout installation, “Particles,” is a ceiling-high spiral structure upon which huge balls roll around on rails, combined with lasers and lights, evoking floating atoms. “[‘Particles’] creates a feeling of unease within the beholder,” Yuko Hasegawa, the exhibition’s curator, told Nikkei. “Using technology in this way awakens a new kind of consciousness inside us.”

Shenzhen was an obvious choice for Rhizomatiks’ first Chinese show, Hasegawa said. China’s youngest city, with an average age of around 34, Shenzhen is in many ways the country’s technological hub, home to the headquarters of electric vehicle giant BYD and telecommunications titan Huawei.

“Multiplex_2023” will run through April 7 at Shenzhen’s Sea World Culture and Arts Center, and has already welcomed over 5,200 visitors since opening on December 10, according to the local cultural initiative Design Society, which is hosting the show.

When Nikkei visited the exhibition on a Thursday in February, the venue was busy with young professionals and families on school break ahead of the Lunar New Year. One visitor, Zhu Dinglan, who runs an online blog about nursery education, said of the show: “It’s very thought-provoking, but also arouses fear. It gives the feeling of a ‘doomsday,’ when AI will dominate, but at the same time lets human beings reflect on ourselves.”

The exhibition’s introspective aspect was what captured the attention of the Design Society, said Zhao Rong, the initiative’s director. “Via this exhibition, as encapsulated by ‘AINA AI’ (an installation made up of AI-generated images), artists are trying to understand AI and how to work alongside it and realize its potential,” Zhao told Nikkei. Society “needs to understand technology in the realm of ethics and under the rule of law.”

The show comes amid rising uncertainty about the role of technology in the arts. Last month, Japanese author Rie Kudan sparked controversy after becoming the first recipient of the prestigious Akutagawa literary prize to admit to using AI in her work. She used OpenAI’s ChatGPT to write parts of her winning novel, “Tokyo Sympathy Tower.” In China, the Beijing Internet Court last November attracted criticism from artists for granting copyright protection to an AI-generated image of a woman, claiming it represented “intellectual achievement,” despite not being created by a human.

For Manabe, “Multiplex_2023” is part of an ongoing quest to understand the opportunities—and dangers—AI presents to artists. He said Rhizomatiks is also working on an “experimental project” to create a “completely clean” AI model, which aims to be free of all bias.

“AI is a powerful tool,” Manabe said, “but its development and use come with responsibilities. It’s crucial for us humans to establish guidelines for using technology safely and ethically.”

This article first appeared on Nikkei Asia. It has been republished here as part of 36Kr’s ongoing partnership with Nikkei.


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