Adelaide Festival Review: I’ll Be Your Mirror

FIFTY+SA Arts Reviewer, David Jobling, reviews Laurie Anderson's I’ll Be Your Mirror presented by Adelaide Festival.

You may have memories from the early 1980s of Performance Artist Laurie Anderson suddenly getting lots of mainstream attention for her songs ‘O Superman’ (1982) and ‘Sharkey’s Day’ (1984) but you’re forgiven if you don’t remember, to some Anderson is quite obscure.

Her cult status has built up over a very long time. Born in 1947 in the USA, Anderson originally studied violin and sculpting, but by the latter 1970s, she was performing Avant-Garde music and mixing it up with the likes of poet Allen Ginsberg, writer William S. Burroughs, musician(s) and composer(s) Philip Glass and Frank Zappa, psychologist and author Timothy Leary, violinist and composer Malcolm Goldstein and music theorist/composer John Cage.

Her foray into mainstream music was a surprise to everyone, not the least of all Anderson herself, and she stuck with it by degrees. Her lifelong interest as a performing artist has been the interaction between new technology and human beings.

This interest has placed her, many times, as an artist-in-residence in some very cutting edge institutions, including The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in Washington D.C. America and recently, The Australian Institute for Machine Learning (AIML) at Adelaide University in South Australia, where she was the world’s first Artificial Intelligence (AI) artist-in-residence ever.

Her exhibition currently part of Adelaide Festival, I’ll Be Your Mirror, lends it’s title from a song written by her partner/husband of 21 years, Lou Reed (1942 – 2013), you may remember him from bands such as The Velvet Underground, or the album, Transformer – the one with the riff, “And the coloured girls go doo, doo-doo, doo-doo, doo-doo, doo-doo-doo,” in the song ‘Walk On The Wild Side’.

Anderson arrived in Adelaide not long before the world closed it’s borders because of that pesky virus that hasn’t gone away yet (but that’s another story) so she hightailed it back to home in the USA, but not before working with the clever people at AIML and developing what is essentially a couple of Chatbots. Stay with me, I’ll explain in a nut-shell.

A Chatbot is basically a form of software that communicates with a human via text. For example when you are trying to communicate with an essential service on their internet site, like gas, electricity or a government department, that little dialogue box that automatically opens up asking you if it can, “Help you today,” or asks you to “Describe what you are looking for,” and then responds to whatever you type in with a phrase like, “I don’t understand, please say it with less words,”. Chatbots are software that read what you say and find the best response to assist you.

Laurie Anderson and the good people at AIML decided to create a Chatbot that was filled with Lou Reed’s work (written down and scanned I assume, but possibly also fed with recordings) so that it essentially became a Chatbot communicating in the style of Lou Reed. They then created a Chatbot fed with Laurie Anderson’s work so it would respond in a way based on her ability to communicate.

Once these two Chatbots were created it was possible to activate them by typing in a little phrase and starting a communication with them.

So, the exhibition in the Circular Library for Adelaide Festival exists exclusively in Adelaide for the Festival and it is quite obscure if you don’t know what it actually is. The same can be said of the interaction between yourself and the Chatbot you communicate with seeking help from the services providing gas, electric or government, so don’t panic.

This is all new frontier, and that’s why an artist has been brought into the ever developing process of development, to try and infuse some creative humanity, soul or humour into the evolution of AI. Not convinced? Let’s go back to Lou Reed.

He was considered to be an underground musician. His early work was favoured by Andy Warhol in the early days and his band The Velvet Underground were very hip but not immediately commercially successful. After Reed left that band due to artistic differences he went on to create the biggest commercial success of his career, Transformer, which was produced by Mick Ronson and David Bowie (now you have no excuse not to know who he was) and this may give you an insight into the real value of Lou Reed from an insiders point of view. The song ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ was ground breaking in 1972 and it remains arguably one of the most envelope shifting singles of all time, it remains relevant and topical even now in 2024.

The fact that Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson were a couple may well be mind-blowing for some who didn’t already know they were an item, because in this couple you have two extremely accomplished avant-garde performing artists who have had a genuine influence in popular culture from a counter-culture position. What does that mean? It means they were not mainstream popular artists, so while Taylor Swift may be considered influential from her very public podium, Anderson and Reed were never as popular as Taylor Swift and most relevant, they chose not to be. They were happy not basing their art on commercial success. So it is pretty cool that the first artistic influencers of the evolution of Chatbots are a pair of very hip creative thinkers rather than artists driven by popularity and money. It doesn’t mean the outcome of the process to create the exhibition is neat and tidy and tied up in a cute little package. It does mean you do have to do some non-artificial learning (NAI) to appreciate the product, otherwise you’re likely to walk in to the Circular Library, look around and go, “Huh?” and walk out disappointed, not knowing or understanding what you just saw.

What do you see? Well that is where this exhibition gets really interesting and will hopefully start you thinking and talking. You see a large book in a glass box that is open to a page that could be from the Bible because it has Psalms on it. You see some words attributed to Laurie and Lou on hanging banners that sort of form a dialogue, but it doesn’t really make a clear coherent sense, but it could, yet it would be kind of strange if it did.

Surrounding these hanging banners from floor to ceiling are shelves and shelves of books. Old dusty, scruffy books with titles on them like, ‘Voss’ by Patrick White, and ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ by Paul Gallico and ‘Come In Spinner’ by Dymphna Cusack, and ‘The Root of all Evil’ by J.S. Fletcher and even ‘Yellow Peril’ by Gilbert Hackforth-Jones.

Image credit: Author supplied

Why would this Circulating Library be the perfect place to display ‘new material’ created by a Laurie Anderson Chatbot and a Lou Reed Chatbot?

If you think about it and do some research you may find yourself, like Alice (in Wonderland) saying this is “curiouser and curiouser” to yourself because, is there a dialogue happening between these old dusty books and this AI generated conversation between two hipsters, one ageing, one dead?

If you do the research you’ll find Anderson once pointed out that this exhibition is exploring ‘machine learning’ more than ‘artificial intelligence’ right now, but check the date on that thought because algorithmic evolution moves at a rather exponential pace.

Unless you do a little bit of research and deep thinking yourself, only selah will have the answer to the questions that arise from all of this. I am not a machine, I am one person who did some research and is now realising how exciting and horrifying I’ll Be Your Mirror actually is.

I’ll Be Your Mirror

until Sunday 17th of March

State Library of South Australia, Adelaide

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