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FutureFantastic: Using tech art and AI to talk about climate action

A first-of-its-kind festival in Bengaluru explores how artists can respond to climate crisis using art and artificial intelligence

Poetics of Garbage makes the viewer question their relationship with waste and reflect on the world/ Picture credit: FutureFantastic
Poetics of Garbage makes the viewer question their relationship with waste and reflect on the world/ Picture credit: FutureFantastic

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As I exited the auditorium, the person next to me whispered loudly. “AI is really bad at choreography.” As a group broke into laughter, I joined, reflexively. We had just witnessed a refreshingly new performance, Human in Loop: Work in Progress, where the two dancers’ movements are based on the interpretations of an artificial intelligence bot’s instructions played into their earphones. 

This performance was part of the FutureFantastic 2023, a first-of-its-kind AI and Arts festival in India, that explores the collaborative power between tech art and AI to amplify climate action. The festival, conceptualised by BeFantastic in partnership with FutureEverything (UK), was inaugurated in Ranga Shankara, Bengaluru on 11 March. 

In 2014, while working in, a startup focused on building collaborative communities, Kamya Ramachandran and co-founders Archana Prasad and Freeman Murray started exploring the idea of developing a way of bringing together technology, art and climate change. With this idea, artists Ramachandran and Prasad organised the Bengaluru Fantastic Festival, which called upon art and technology communities to work together to create art pieces based on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a framework to imagine positive futures. The festival also marked the beginning of BeFantastic.

Also read: Week in tech: from Spotify to an AI-generated Seinfeld spoof

“We are not experts at creating a framework for the future. So, we chose the SDGs and explored the question of how artists can respond to them. And this was the genesis of what we are doing today,” Ramachandran tells Lounge.

In the last three years, as covid-19 imposed several restrictions to the project, BeFantastic had to change its course. What was supposed to be workshops for the next festival, were turned into a fellowship that could now be extended to international artists from countries including Singapore, the UK, the US, Germany, and Switzerland. 

“Due to covid, we shifted towards exploring artificial intelligence, as a process and method of art making,” Ramachandran explains. In 2023, as AI became a trend, FutureFantastic is aiming to steer the wheel towards engaging people in conversations about AI and how tech art can be used in climate action and awareness.

“We noticed this in the previous festival, when technology comes in, everyone, from a child to older people are engaged in art and the barriers are suddenly lifted. They are more open to engaging with the art pieces and in the process, understand the message behind it,” Ramachandran says. 

This is the idea behind the multi-weekend, multi-venue FutureFantastic this year, to make tech art accessible to all. With the climate emergency calling for urgent action, this festival made the pressing issue its central theme, with various perspectives from participating nations pouring in through the artworks. 

Artists from across the participating countries were put in touch with NGOs championing climate change work to understand the context in each other's countries. They were also provided access to 15 mentors and about 40 experts on AI and environmentalism. “So, in many ways, this festival is a handcrafted one,” Ramachandran adds. 

The opening day presented interesting installations and performances such as such as Poetics of Garbage or Plastic Prāyaścitta by Aashna Arora, Bruce Gilchrist, Chaitali Kulkarni, and Thaniya Kanaka Mahalakshmi. This is a video shot of a girl wearing thrown-away plastic bottles and other plastic waste as a costume walking through a crowded street in Delhi, as people look baffled. It makes you think about your relationship with waste and reflect on the world we are harming daily. “She has become part of people’s collective memory,” the narrator says referring to the waste that she seems to be holding up as a mirror. 

Another installation, Give Me A Sign by Upasana Nattoji Roy and Diane Edwards is an interactive one where you can have a conversation using mudras or hand gestures. For instance, one of the mudras, raising only your forefinger, signifies ‘Tech’ and when you do it front of the computer, the video related to it plays on the adjacent screen. 

In CUSP, Jake Elwes reimagines his childhood memory of the Essex marshes using AI. He places digital versions crafted from native birds in the familiar landscape, mudflats of Landermere Creek. With this, he changes and disrupts the natural ecology. 

Finally, the highlight of the evening, Human in the Loop: Work in Progress, was performed by Diya Naidu and Parth Bharadwaj and conceptualised by Nicole Seller. Aimed at raising questions about the power dynamics between AI choreographers and human performers, the 50-minute act takes the audience through an exploration of technology’s impact on the human experience. 

In the first few minutes, the dancers perform to no music or words, only silence. As they start jumping and twisting with very surprising movements, you start questioning what you have signed up for. When they perform the same act again, a sound that feels like a disrupted background score of a video game plays and the third time, we hear the instructions that the AI had been giving them: “hopping backwards,” “forwards,” “lift the left arm,” “with an easy smile on her face.”

In an almost inexplainable way, the performance is what you would expect if AI was asked to choreograph: absurdity juxtaposed with repetitions, almost as if it was bound with no sense of free movement. It also makes you question AI’s integration in different aspects and the limitations that one might be overlooking. 

“Through the creative medium, the festival is also encouraging us to think of the limits of AI. For example, facial recognition for Asian faces using AI hasn't been revamped. A lot of the data that AI is being trained on is very western-centric. So, the festival is not only looking at AI only as innovation but also through the lens of limitations and their consequences,” Ramachandran explains. 

In her speech at the inauguration ceremony, Ramachandran summarised the intent of the festival in simple words: an attempt to shift mindsets around the state of the world around us.

The festival will move to Bangalore International Centre on 24 March for the weekend with more installations, films, and dialogues. 

Some of the events include, the headliner, Palimpest, which focuses on “exposing the rampant consumerism, urban chaos, and climate change of such urban ecologies,” an installation where an AI Moirologist will help you cry, a “constructive way to deal with personal and environment loss” in a tribute to human emotion and the need for empathy. 

An installation aimed to understand individual responsibility regarding climate crisis, Only A Game, will let you create generative AI art where your movements become a solution to global warming. On the last day, a discussion titled, AI Art: A Marriage of Heaven and Hell?, will explore whether it’s possible to create AI that is environmentally and ethically responsible. 

Also read: Climate Change ‘Doom Loop’: How to reclaim the narrative of urgent climate action

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