“We can decide a lot more things about technology than what we are led to believe”

Mónica Rikić

Retrat de Mónica Rikić © Mariona Gil Sala

When we hear the word ‘coder’, a young engineer swaying dangerously close to sociopathy comes to mind, obsessed with becoming the new Mark Zuckerberg. Mónica Rikić (Barcelona, 1986), new media artist and creative coder, is something else. Instead of wracking her brains to invent the umpteenth million-dollar app, she works with technology to change our toxic relationship. Her proposal undergoes art: Rikić’s practice consists of working with code, electronics and non-digital objects to design interactive artistic experiences that she prefers to call “games”, although they seek to go beyond entertainment and bring viewers to engage in social reflection.

Despite her young age, Rikić is already a point of reference in her field. After years of taking part in leading festivals such as Ars Electronica, the Japan Media Arts Festival, the FILE Festival and Sónar, she has won the 2021 National Culture Award of Catalonia.

I’ve caught you in the midst of working.

It’s the busiest week of the year [the interview was conducted the first week of July 2021]. On Tuesday I’m going to CosmoCaixa in Madrid to set up a piece for the exhibition Homo Ludens. Videojuegos para entender el presente [Homo Ludens. Videogames to Understand the Present] curated by Luca Carrubba [from 20 July to 31 October 2021]. The piece is a giant toy, measuring 1.5 metres by 1.2 metres, and it is a machine that plays independently: the only interaction it has with visitors is that, when it detects the audience is looking at it excessively, it gets angry, says that it wants to play alone and switches itself off.

It seems like a perfect example of your line of work: you design robots with characteristically human problems that astonish because they have a more sympathetic and everyday nature than those we usually associate with electronic art.

I come from a Fine Arts background and from there I went into programming and electronics, so I always approach technology from the human perspective. I came across technology as an artistic tool and then the tool itself became a cradle of conceptual thought. What interests me about artificial intelligence is the myth, the universal and widespread narrative surrounding it. I am not interested in the technical aspects that explain how machines become smart, but in the social consequences of them being so. I am interested in no longer wondering whether robots will become as smart or smarter than human beings and start contemplating all the possibilities that emerge based on this fact. And I always try to avoid apocalyptic points of view. I wonder what these smart machines would feel. For example, another piece of mine, La computadora que quería ser incomputable [The Computer That Wanted to Be Incomputable] (2020), is a robot with imposter syndrome. Her problem is that humans are forcing her to be creative and she’s frustrated: it’s not in her nature, and if robots were to be creative, they wouldn’t be creative either in a way that adheres to human expectations.

What’s the problem with the conventional narrative with which we relate to technology?

By the way I work on it in my pieces, I make technology a subject. As the philosopher Éric Sadin says, technology has gone from being an object to being a governing agent, a biopower. In Western culture, and especially in the colonial paradigm I think, we have always approached others from a position of superiority. Instead, we perceive technology as another entity superior to us: robots steal our work, technology is dominating us, we cannot escape the control of social networks, and so forth. Why is this narrative created? Because artificial intelligence is capable of making concept associations within its database at high speed. But, while it is true that machines are very efficient, they do not replicate all the wealth of human thought. If the main values are productivity, efficiency, lack of affection and lack of care in our society, then machines will indeed beat us as long as we compete with it. This value system is responsible for us seeing technology as another superior entity. And so is the lack of knowledge that exists, interested or not, in technological processes. People think you have to be a great engineer to understand technology but, in actual fact, everyone can understand it, like myself, coming from the art world and now working in programming.

Do you think that the technological medium is neutral and the problem is simply how we are using it?

Technology is not always neutral. Machine learning algorithms are discriminatory because they always favour finding patterns over diversity. That is why I try to open up other realities of thought. Social media are what they are because they are designed to be addictive and because, if you have so many people communicating through improper channels that we have not conceived by ourselves, we will all ultimately be the same. This is scary because the lack of diversity makes us easier to manipulate. I am not optimistic, but I try to show that we can say and decide a lot more things about technology than we are led to believe.

You have created inquisitive robots, artificial intelligences with existential crises, machines with impostor syndrome... What guiding theme connects these works?

People may believe that, to talk about turning technology into a subject, I am talking about elevating it. And it is exactly the opposite: I am talking about lowering it. Technology is not a superior entity with which we have a subordinate relationship, as if machines were technological gods: technology is a subject for which we can feel empathy. And to create empathy we need to be able to see the vulnerability of the other. A clear case is the famous Boston Dynamics robots. There are many videos of people reacting with fear or disgust. Why? Because they are robots designed to copy and surpass the human being. On the other hand, if you design soft, coloured robots that look like toys, the approach is different. It’s also the reason I always try to avoid anthropomorphic design: robots are different beings. The key is to maintain otherness and, at the same time, to create empathy. Considering the machine to be vulnerable, suffering or undergoing an existential crisis, makes people instinctively develop empathy.

It is often said that some Eastern societies, because they are founded on animistic religions, have much less trouble relating to machines. Should we learn from this cultural perspective?

Yes. Growing up in an environment where there are religions like Japanese Shintoism is very different. I believe a lot in the power of fiction. In the West we grow up seeing Hollywood depictions in which robots are usually women superior to men, who are subjugated to their owners until, finally, they betray them. It is the narrative of films that have been big hits, such as Her and Ex Machina. In contrast, in Japan people grow up seeing examples like the Astro Boy robot. To begin with, Astro Boy is the replica of the dead son of its creator. Here this would be considered gruesome. Instead, in it we find a universe in which the coexistence between humans and robots is presented as something natural and good. I think that care and assistance robots for the elderly, which are much more accepted in Japan than here, can be of help. The issue is collaboration with machines, not competition. If the person has a healthy relationship with robotic agents, it shouldn’t be a problem as far as I am concerned. The danger arises when the relationship is toxic.

All these reflections can be done in many ways: what is specific about art when it comes to considering them?

Art is a tool that leaves a lot of room for free experimentation, like a game. In a game you can play different roles and change without suffering direct consequences, but there are consequences for your thinking. When I started programming I had the feeling that I had to prove a lot of things (being a woman in a man’s territory, coming from the art world, etc.). When I shook that feeling I realised that art is representation: I do not have to prove anything technical, but take technical knowledge to places where it cannot be reached from other fields that have expectations associated with productivity. Art is the only field where you can work with technology to come up with different results. And this reaches the viewer, who, when they approach technology in an artistic context, do so with very different expectations.

In art and technology exhibitions, the boundary is blurred between what is business and what is art. It is very different to see a piece of digital art at the Santa Mònica Arts Centre or in the BEEP Collection than at the Mobile World Congress or Sónar. Is there a balance or tension between these two worlds?

Sónar itself changed its name. From “Festival of Advanced Music and Electronic Art” it was renamed “Creativity, Technology & Business”. I heavily protested this change, but I spoke with people from Sónar and they told me it was a change of strategy. Now Sónar no longer has art exhibitions, although Sónar+D endeavours to uphold that spirit and the people they invite to give talks are quite good. The point is that they were honest and changed their name. Other festivals that attempt to mislead seem more serious to me, because in actual fact they are music festivals in which digital art is used as mere decoration. I think you are right, many people want to appropriate digital art, but, for me, the main issue is that the only chance the artists have to exhibit are these spaces. They are spaces with exorbitant admission that make you reach a limited audience.

Do you think digital art is being handled well in Barcelona?

A few years ago I would have said no, and I was working much more abroad than here. But now there is more interest and lots of people working, especially in Barcelona. There is also the BEEP Collection (which is from Reus but travels here a lot), the Ars Electronica exhibition, the CERN artist residency run by Mónica Bello... In Barcelona, there is interest in digital art right now and it is being handled well.

In what sense does the notion of play, or video games, help us to understand the present?

Games allow you to experience other realities and different perspectives of the world at first hand, and no two games are ever the same. When you say something is an interactive work of art, people approach it with a degree of caution. On the other hand, if you say that it is a game, the caution abates and people get into it much more.

Gamification has a dark side: many companies use game mechanics to boost their workers’ productivity.

When I say that I like to reappropriate technological systems, I am talking about the ability to unlearn. The capitalist system tries to take over everything it comes across to achieve economic gain, because it is founded on that principle. But the trick lies in knowing how to play the game and trying to get out of it. We are in the midst of a very difficult time in many respects, but I think a positive discourse is needed, that we must try to change things.

What is your working method?

My inspiration comes from reading. I am always reading to get ideas, and from those ideas I look for relationships. I also try to look at the same concept from different perspectives. This is what we talked about at the beginning of the social implications of artificial intelligence. It helps me rethink the same idea for a while so that it takes me to different places. And the object emerges from the idea. I really like the object, the result of my work is always an object. As for the method, I always work in layers. The first that the viewer encounters is the physical layer, which I always try to make with soft materials, full of colour that arouses interest in the piece. If you want, you can go no further. I also try to always have a playful layer so that the viewer can interact with it. For example, in La computadora que quería ser incomputable [The Computer That Wanted to Be Incomputable], in the end, if you see that the machine is suffering too much, you can kill it by pressing a button. The viewer can also stop here, but if the physical layer and the playful layer are appealing enough to capture their attention, then I try to take them to another layer: the concept layer. In the case of La computadora que quería ser incomputable – which, even if you kill it, comes back to life after a while – the idea is that we have agency over technology and, at the same time, technology has its own agency that is different to ours. And finally, there is a technological layer: these are usually systems that I develop myself, but I can be more ambitious if I have a bigger budget.

One of the latest pieces that you exhibited is Data Gossiping Robots (2019), a group of inquisitive robots that communicate based on rumours extracted from the personal data of your social media profiles. Do things happen that you had not planned when you exhibit your works to the public?

I went to talk about this very piece in the Sala Beckett and was told that robots are actually theatrical devices. And I thought: “They’re right”. I used to call them “futuristic science-fiction interactive robotic narratives”, but it’s much better to call them that. The appeal of the piece is that it really makes you think and people forget about whether robots do what I say. They are chatbots that have my information in the database, but people cannot check the extent to which it is true. The piece awakens many thoughts and people immediately identify with it and want to find out more. It is the beauty of layered work.

Retrat de Mónica Rikić © Mariona Gil Sala Mónica Rikić © Mariona Gil Sala

New Home of Mind (2020) has also grabbed my attention, an installation based on the idea of a conscious robot with an existential crisis, in pursuit of the meaning of life after the code has been erased.

The idea of this piece is what happens if a machine has been made in the image and likeness of a human, but its nature is completely different. I did a speculative search and I thought there would be three key points that would plunge the machine into crisis. The first is the temporal development of existence: we recognise ourselves in the past and project ourselves into the future, whereas machines are recursive, living in a cybertime that is not organic. The second point is death: machines cannot die, while we live with the presence of our finitude lurking. And the third is uncertainty: machines acquire intelligence by accumulating concepts, while humans do so through experience with unique meanings and relationships. When machines realise that they can only know the contents of their database, they start to doubt whether what they know is true or not. It is very similar to our experience with the Catholic religion: we are told that we were created in the image and likeness of an impressive god and, when we develop awareness of ourselves, we realise that we are not like this god, that we have been created by something that is not what we are like.

What would change if we learned to relate to machines in the empathic and collaborative manner that you propose?

The beauty of not being regulated by a single narrative is that there would be many different ways of relating to machines. I not only try to see machines as beings that are more human, but also humans as more technological beings. Through technology, I try for us to see the other as something that is not threatening, another being with whom we can collaborate.

What do you prefer about digital art?

Code is magic. When I started programming I saw that I could do whatever I wanted with code. And, on a theatrical level, I saw that you can make things come to life. The good thing about the physical world, which is what I like to work with, is that you can create devices that can feel the world and react. A machine with a sensor can perceive input and react with an output. It can be something as simple as a light sensor that responds by turning on another light, or it can be as complex as a prying robot. What I like the most is being able to take you to other worlds and to do it myself with my knowledge.

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