I met Memo Akten at the École Sainte Maire in Namur (Belgium). On my way there, I couldn’t stop thinking of transforming images moved by the rhythm of music. It was like digital poetry. Those images were from Memo’s project Learning To See, in which he transforms everyday objects into art pieces through a camera. It is one of those artworks that makes you see technology as something more than just complex numbers, formulas and unknown words. It shines a light on the power of technology to transform the ordinary into beauty and fineness.
That’s how I got to know Memo, but as soon as I dug deeper into his work, I found other brilliant pieces like Deep Meditations, with which he invites you – as the name says – to meditate. It’s a constant reflection about perceptions, proving that what you see and the meaning you give to it might not be the same to anyone else. And that’s the wonderful thing about the project. I can’t forget Nimiia Cétiï either – a deep learning (Artificial Intelligence) collaboration with Jenna Sutela (leader of the project) and Damien Henry (from Google Arts & Culture) in which they gave voice to bacteria, transforming the movements and spatial configurations into sounds and symbols. It’s a connection with a world beyond our consciousness, a conversation with non-speaking entities.

Memo Akten was in Belgium to present Body Paint, an interactive installation that explores the creative and expressive power of human bodies through non-verbal communication. There he was, in a room of the École Sainte Marie, preparing his piece for the opening of Kikk Festival on the next day. Sitting down together, we discussed everything from merging spirituality and science, AI ethics, his beginnings as an engineer-turned-artist and what keeps him going.
First of all, let me congratulate you for the Body Paint installation at Kikk in Town. You started this project about ten years ago and has toured worldwide ever since. But times change, and so does technology, especially nowadays. How has the project evolved with time?
For quite a while, it didn’t evolve much, but obviously, ten years is a very long period of time when you are dealing with emerging technologies – not only because of technology advances but also because some grow obsolete. I was using very special cameras that you can’t find anymore. And not only the cameras but also the firewire is dying, so I had to change it. So, that’s one thing: technology going obsolete and hardwares improving. And because hardwares are improving, it’s possible to try to leverage those developments.
So, for quite a while, I was trying to be a purist and say, ‘I’m not gonna update it. It is Body Paint 2009 using the technology of 2009’. But then, when the camera went obsolete, I had to update it, so I thought, ‘As I have to update it, I might also improve some bits’. Thus, now it is kind of brand new, it’s written from scratch. 
And how do you adapt the project to each location?
Generally, it’s very easy because it’s only about putting it into the space. But, obviously, the size and dimensions can be a problem because I like to fill the space entirely no matter how big it is. That’s one of the benefits of technological advances; ten years ago, I couldn’t have done it fifty meters big – maybe the NASA had the computers to do so, but that was not affordable for me, whereas now, I can make it.
At Kikk Festival, you’re talking about what you call ‘ritual algorithm’. It is an attempt to reconcile spirituality with science, to understand empathy and compassion in today’s world. Can you sum it up a little bit for us? What is the main statement you want to make with this talk?
It’s hard to give a main statement. It won’t be like a TED talk, where you have one sentence that summarizes everything. It really is a journey. But one of the key things is thinking of rituals as an algorithm for the body and mind.
Could you expand more on that concept?
A ritual is a sequence of steps and actions that we follow, physically and mentally, which helps us achieve a mental state that otherwise we wouldn’t be able to achieve. So, rituals are algorithms for shifting our own perspective and our state of being, which is literally what an algorithm is (from a computation perspective). Then, I talk about thinking on how we can use rituals to shift our perspective to go to desired states.
Regarding the points of view and empathy, I talk about this aspect as a response to the increasing social and political polarization I have witnessed in my home country, Turkey, during the past twenty years. I mean, there are always political disagreements, but right now, in Turkey, the polarization is bigger than ever; I hadn’t seen anything like it – and I’m in my 40s. Same with the Brexit and also with Trump. The level of hatred and resentment between supporters from one side or the other, that level of rejection…
It’s terrible, I know.
This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and obviously, we are facing many crises right now. Aside from the political, there’s the climate crisis, a growing rejection of neoliberalism, etc. We have a lot on our hands right now.
How do you reconcile spirituality and science/technology? They seem opposed at first, but maybe they’re not that different in the end.
This is a very important question. Again, the starting point is that when thinking of rituals, we tend to focus on the spiritual aspects, but I try to say that that’s not necessarily the case. I try to approach it from a scientific point of view and see how we have evolved, how intelligence might have evolved, even how consciousness might have evolved. And the conclusion is that the conscious mind is actually not in control; it feels like it is, but now there’s growing evidence that it isn’t.
How come?
The conscious mind is just our body’s report to itself on what is happening both inside and outside the body. It is the body and the unconscious mind who are driving. So, how do we gain control over this? How do we interact with the unconscious mind through rituals? It is with rituals that we are able to shift our perspective as I said. So, these are some of the things that I’m talking about, but I also talk about people’s energies.
In what ways?
Again, this is very spiritual but, actually, it’s a purely scientific concept. Quoting Lisa Feldman Barret, “the purpose of the brain is to regulate the nervous system.” But in the so-called social animals like humans, the brain can’t regulate the nervous system by itself because it’s too complicated. A brain able to do so would be so big that it wouldn’t fit in our bodies. So evolution has given us the task to regulate each other’s nervous system. When we talk about social interaction, it’s actually us regulating each other’s nervous systems. Even these words that I’m saying right now are impacting you, they are making physical changes in your brain. I’m not saying I have the answer to all of this, but this is how I bridge spirituality with science.
So, we could say you focus on the effects of technology on society rather than study technology per se, is that right?
It is. I like to study the impacts of technology on society, including impacts on us as individuals, on our cognition, on augmenting our minds and bodies, but also all the relationships with each other – impacts on ethics, on rituals, culture, traditions, etc. I like to dig deep into these aspects of technology. Also, I would like to underline that when I’m talking about technology, I mean emerging technology because everything is technology; this piece of paper is technology and it has been studied for centuries. So I’m specifically looking at emerging technologies that haven’t been much studied yet. Particularly, software and algorithms. Thus, it’s primarily computation.
In fact, you have stated in the past, “my biggest inspiration is trying to understand the world around me. What is the nature of the universe? What is the nature of life? What is the nature of the mind?” Well, after so many projects, have you found any of these answers? Or will these questions remain unanswered forever?
The three things you have just mentioned are basically physics (the nature of the universe), biology (the nature of life) and philosophy, cognitive science or even AI (the nature of the mind). So, they will never be like, ‘Ahá! This is it!’ because, with every layer that you unveil, there is another layer. It isn’t about finding the answer really. This is what religion does. It’s primarily for people who don’t like the unknown, the ones who say, ‘Ok, here’s the answer’. Whereas other people like myself enjoy quests. So, as I said, every answer you find will lead you to another question.
Let’s talk a little bit about your beginnings. When you first started studying Civil Engineering in Istanbul, did you already know you wanted to transform technology into art? How did your relationship with art begin?
I studied Civil Engineering because that was kind of the educational system I was part of in Istanbul. Being an artist was not a possibility for me. In high school, I was good at maths, so I was on that track to become an engineer. I never really set up to become an artist, but even before going to university, since I was 10 or so, I was doing things on the computer – non-functional things. Back in the days I called them ‘silly-stupid things’. In fact, I used to call them ‘abstract shit’ – I still have the domain name. It was only many years later when I realized that I was making a sub-field of art. I barely knew anything about art, sp for me, art was only about paintings and sculptures. I wasn’t aware that what I was doing was art too.
You are currently doing a PhD on Artificial Intelligence in the University of London. Are you doing so because of your artistic career?
I wouldn’t say it was my artistic career but my personal interest. I have been working with computers since I was 10, and everything I’ve been doing since then has been a form of making the computer understand – this is a strong word, people will call me mad (laughs) – what the person interacting with it wants to do. In the 2000s, I was working a lot with computer visions as a way to understand how computers see the world and trying to understand the world. Body Paint, from 2009, is an example of those computer visions.
In those days, we didn’t call it AI but the algorithms I’m using – talking on academia sense – are fold under the umbrella of AI. So, I’ve been working with some forms of AI the whole time. It’s only machine learning that is very recent. When people say AI, they mean deep learning. Therefore, for me, it was very natural. I’ve always been using AI but I was also interested in machine learning.
Also, the biggest curiosity is how to use these models – that’s one of the biggest motivations for the birth of AI – to understand the broader concept of intelligence, how the human mind builds competition models to test hypothesises or how the human mind might work. Now, the AI that we have today is not that, it is purely a product of today’s capitalism, but a lot of the unreported research on the media was about this.
Working with Artificial Intelligence means studying the human’s mind, right? How we think, what and whom we give importance to, the reason of our prejudices, etc. What are you most passionate about AI? What is the most exciting or shocking discovery you’ve made?
There are two main branches in AI that I like. One is trying to understand how the human mind works and what intelligences has to build. The other one is just to get products working like speech recognition, and this is mostly an engineering problem. I am interested in both. The most interesting problem, I’d say, is the first one, but that isn’t where most of the research is happening. When we see studies in the media, that’s not it. They are about specific problems. These days, there’s not much that blows my mind in terms of what’s going on because it is all very incremental.
Personally, there are a few key milestones. One was when the Microsoft Connect came out in 2010 – which is the sense of the Xbox – because that was the first consumer device extracting skeleton information from a depth map and using a form of machine learning. That’s when I realized that machine learning had a practical use for my interest. AlphaGo was exciting a few years ago. But since then, nothing made go, ‘Oh my god!’
There are still many challenges to face in AI. Some technologists want to accelerate the progress on the field without enough critical and social engagement. For example, these AI softwares are being taught the values that inform and have informed society for a long time: racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, etc. Thus, how does morality collide with technology in your work?
There is a growing field called AI Ethics. I’m not an AI Ethics researcher but I know many people full-time researching within this field, specifically the ethical implications. It’s something I think about a lot and I do try to reflect on in my work, but I am by no means near the forefront of that research. However, there are a few aspects I have in mind.
For example?
Obviously, bias is the more topical because it’s actually having an impact right now. There are algorithms out there that are being deployed, which is pretty shocking. I hope that we’re going to look back in ten or twenty years and think, ‘What the hell were we thinking? How did we let that happen?’ The other end of the extreme is that people aren’t worried about singularity. I’m not worried about it either, but what I am most concerned about – which is not being discussed as much – is the unknown unknowns.
Machine learning is a field focused on extracting meaningful information from big data. So, what I’m thinking about is, what kind of information and knowledge might we gain that would be better not to gain? This is the technology that will help us really go beyond what we are capable of; this is the technology that can help us cure Alzheimers or cancers – I’m not saying technology will do that, but it can help, it can provide insights. For example, lie detectors. What if we have an app that can detect when someone is lying just from the facial expressions? I think it’s possible.
But what if the app is wrong? How can it have the absolute truth?
I know, it can be mistaken! But there are two possible futures: one in which this app can make mistakes. But imagine the other scenario, in which the app doesn’t make mistakes. What if the app gets to tell who’s lying but it’s only sold in the black market and only a few people have it. Or maybe this technology is only available for very rich people…
And here’s where morality enters the game again?
Exactly! But even if everybody has access to the app, it’s still transforming society because lying would have to disappear or some people would have to develop the skills to beat the machine. Then, some people would be able to lie and some would not. I don’t necessarily believe this precise example is going to happen, but I do think that these sort of situations will become a reality.
Another example. What if you are typing on your keyboard and I can, somehow, infer what you are typing just from the muscles on the back of your arm? Or what if we can create babies with a 500 IQ? This is plausible technology if we manage to understand how the brain creates intelligence. And what if these are very expensive technologies and only wealthy people can have babies of 500 IQ? It is a very difficult problem! But if it is within the laws of physics, it should be considered plausible. We could be talking about it all day long…
I know! This is such a huge and interesting field. But let’s go back to you a bit. You have won many awards like the Golden Nica for Forms; you have also been featured in many publications such as the BBC, The Financial Times or Wired; and some of your work has been exhibited in prestigious venues around the world. So, your talent has been quite rewarded. There isn’t a formula, but according to you, what are some of the most important skills an artist needs to have?
Oh, that’s an interesting question. First of all, it’s funny to say that I’ve been rewarded for my creations because it doesn’t feel that way.
Doesn’t it?
Well, if you summarize it in one paragraph, it does! (Laughs) But it has really been a long journey. Anyway, I don’t know what are the most important skills an artist should have. I’ll reformulate the question a bit and answer thinking of the advice I would give to new artists.
Perfect, let’s do it. What skills would you advise younger artists to develop or work on? 
The first necessary thing to have I’d say is patience. It is essential. Speaking from my experience, it has taken me quite a long time to achieve many things, so I’ve needed to be patient. The second one would be sticking to your trajectory. Whereas there are people who just focus on one topic forever, my trajectory has been all over the place, doing all kinds of stuff. However, the trajectory is actually very clear in my mind. And another thing I would say is that they need to push beyond, try to go further. You need to find a place where you stand out. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be the best, but if you want recognition, you need to push through.
Let’s talk about the future. How do you forecast the growing relationship between emerging technologies and art? What new possibilities do you see emerging from this relationship?
One thing that we are already seeing is the commercialization and the shift towards entertainment. I don’t know when it all started, but there are things like the Museum of Ice Cream, for example, which is basically a selfie shop. But then, you have things like TeamLab in Tokyo, which is very much on a Disney-like scale. This is going to be very interesting because it’s a model directly focused on customers. The former models for artists were selling the artwork to galleries or very rich people, or even working with cultural institutions.
However, now there is this other model, which is exciting but also comes with different pressures. For example, the work has to be accessible, it has to be mainstream. And something like Body Paint brings that. It’s about taking it to events, it’s open to the public, you go with your family. And I like it! It’s becoming the new ‘going to the theatre’ or ‘going to the cinema’.
So, for what you are saying, a ten-year-old project like Body Paint still has a long road ahead.
Yes, surprisingly so! I mean, it’s been ten years and it’s still popular. And the best thing is that apart from some updates, I haven’t really change it at all!
And for you, on a personal level, what would you like to do or explore? Any new project you can talk about?
No new projects that I’m working on. My main project right now is finishing my PhD; I need to write the thesis so I’m not engaging myself in any new projects. I have lots of ideas, though. There are lots of things I want to do. I’d like to dig deeper in these avenues that I mentioned regarding rituals and empathy. But empathy as anti-polarization because, when we talk about it, we often think on empathizing with people who suffer, but we don’t necessarily do with ‘the other’, with the so-called ‘enemy’. I want to study empathy on opposition – not for pity or emotional empathy, but cognitional – to understand and discover how and what they think because I believe this is actually the way to solve today’s problems.
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