Shin Seung Back and Kim Yong Hun, aka Shinseungback Kimyonghun work on the intersection between technology, humanity and nature. Their highly technical installation art ranges from Nonfacial Mirror, a mirror that will not reflect recognisably human faces, to Stone, a video and box that simulate a stone’s experience of waves crashing over it. In 2019, as technology evolves, so does what it means to be human. Shinseungback Kimyonghun give us some answers.
Your artistic project was born in 2012. Was there a particular moment that sparked your creative process together?
Kim Yong Hun: We first met each other in 2010 at the Graduate School of Culture Technology, KAIST. I, as an artist, went there with the hope to deepen my understanding of technology. Seung Back, as an engineer, began his studies in the same year with an interest in creative works. Both of us were open to collaboration because we knew it was necessary for what we wanted to do. In 2012, we finished our master’s studies and started to work as a team.
From the first flint stone that produced fire, humans have always been using tools. When does the tool cease to be an inanimate object?
Shin Seung Back: When one sees the individuality of a tool and gives it her heart, it becomes alive. Kim Yong Hun: It depends on how we see it. They could be just tools but they could also be an extension of the human. Now, AI makes us realize that it could even be an entity.
Your installation piece Stone allowed the audience to experience waves crashing on them, as a volcanic rock, through a mechanical simulation created based on digital data you collected. I see this as a way of empowering nature; rather than looking at it as something beautiful and passive, you interrogate its experience. Is this for an environmentalist goal? To us, the world is shared, and we need to change our behaviours accordingly?
Shin Seung Back: I can see mountains through a window in the cafe where I’m working with my laptop. When I was working on Stone, I was operating a computer program in front of the waves. I still don’t know how we should change ourselves but I think about the scene when machines, humans and nature are all together.
Kim Yong Hun: The project started with a thought of me becoming a stone, with love for nature. I wouldn’t see myself as an environmentalist, but that sort of hope might have been there.
Today, to what extent are nature and technology combined?
Shin Seung Back: Is there any pure nature now? Nature and humans are closely interwoven through technology. Some nature can exist only with human beings, and others will exist without us.
Kim Yong Hun: It is humans that make the distinction between the two. Nature is natural because there is no human intervention. Technology is artificial because it is made by humans. Now, nature is being altered by humans and technology is getting out of human hands.
Nonfacial Portrait is your most recent piece. Artists painted human portraits whilst being filmed to create a face that is undetected by computers. Like your previous work, Captcha Tweet, the art hides in plain sight from the digital gaze. Do you think we show too much to the machine?
Shin Seung Back: Machines do not have their own purpose yet. The problem now is the people trying to profit from mechanized processes. They have too much data. But it is insufficient for machines to really understand humankind.
Kim Yong Hun: It’s more about exploring unique human abilities than hiding from machines. The originality of humanity is often discussed in relation to AI today since it is becoming able to mimic many of our abilities. It could be seen as a threat to humans but it could also be an opportunity for us to find new human values.
What is your creative process? Do you mainly use digital tools or do you still sketch out ideas on paper?
Shin Seung Back: When working, I usually carry my computer, pen and paper.
Kim Yong Hun: Paper is good when exploring unorganized thoughts but I spend more time with digital tools. A laptop can do so many things.
“Nature is being altered by humans and technology is getting out of human hands.”
You said in an interview that “The world is getting digitalized and so are the humans.” There are more and more cyborg artists; Moon Ribas, Neil Harbisson or Manel Muñoz, who implanted chips in their bodies or have robotic organs. Do you think self-improvement through technological implants is the future or is it just a trend?
Shin Seung Back: Various experiments are meaningful at this stage but I don’t think digitizing humans necessarily means the mechanization of human beings. It is also part of the process of making machines to understand humans more. Personally, rather than becoming one with a machine, I’d like to sit side by side with one and look at the mountains together.
Kim Yong Hun: Humans will change themselves with technology. I don’t know which technology: implanting machines, editing genes, etc. I’m more interested in the fact that the ‘selection’ is done by humans now, not nature.
Flower and Cloud Face are two of your past exhibitions of computer recognized images. They seem to record what art or leisure robots might enjoy in a ‘post-human’ era. What would they listen to?
Shin Seung Back: An important part of a machine’s perception is recognizing humans. Their world is full of human voices.
Kim Yong Hun: They will listen to whatever we listen to and probably much more. But I don’t know if they’ll enjoy it. Human preferences will set their taste for a while but evolution will lead it afterwards.
The fact that the digital must also manifest itself in the physical is often forgotten – with information being stored in enormous data centres worldwide. What do you think is the cause of this ignorance?
Shin Seung Back: That’s because it’s made based on rules that are different from the ones we think are natural. A digital file that appears to be one in the local disk is actually physically fragmented. We can use it as one file only through a specific algorithm because it is computationally efficient. The same is true for cloud storage. It is designed to be accessible from anywhere and anytime, like air. It is not surprising that we don’t care about the physical location of information as we do not care about where air comes from.
Kim Yong Hun: Digital is often understood as the opposite of real. That might be a reason.
What projects do you have coming up?
Shin Seung Back: We’re experimenting with brain signals and AI.
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