‘The Sparkle: Not Alive Yet Bright’: Macabre God-like Robots and a poetic exploration of timeless Hong Kong

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When robots create paintings from artificial intelligence, is it still art? Can science and art exist side by side? Harbour Times visits ‘The Sparkle: Not Alive Yet Bright’ an artistic collaboration between Hanson Robotics, Computer Science Professor Johan F. Hoorn and local artist Sharmaine Kwan.

Photo: Sharmaine Kwan

Featuring automated poetry, AI generated artwork, calligraphy, meticulously complex clocks and neon structures, The Sparkle: Not Alive Yet Bright explores the life of art – does art ‘live’ or does it just ‘sparkle’? If Art touches the soul, but is not made by a human, is it still Art? Unlikely trio, local artist Sharmaine Kwan, Polytechnic University Professor Johan F. Hoorn and Hanson Robotics present an exhibition that explores these mind-numbingly complex questions.

Enter the large wooden gates of The Catalyst, and one is greeted with a table full of academic journals, theses on robotics and a neon sign – “the first piece”, states Kwan. The bright neon pipes, twisted into circuit like patterns are characteristic of her work, a reference to Hong Kong’s once neon filled skyline.

Set inside an infinity mirror that enhances the cold, blue glow, the neon pipes spell out the Chinese characters 現實, reality, or look at it from another direction 實現, realisation.

『現實|實現』Reality | Realisation (Image: Artist)

Onward into the exhibition, a macabre trio of AI related work sit in an alcove. On the left, a scroll with a sketch of a girl and a monkey, a poem Robot Intimacy and calligraphy by Prof. Hoorn. In the middle, a laptop plugged into a small robot head held up by a plastic hand. To the right, a CGI painting, seemingly of the revelation, with an angel with fiery wings.

The little girl on the scroll is actually Alice R50, an infant robot built to ease loneliness in retirement homes. The irony of co-opting the head of a charitable robot, now lonely, held up by a black plastic hand, tangled wires twirling down her back is not lost on the artists who describe the installation as a “jester’s hand”.

Robot Intimacy and Poems from The Eternal Hoop (Image: Artist)

Designed by Prof. Hoorn and performed by a decapacitated Alice entitled Poems from The Eternal Hoop is an interactive installation where audience type into a custom-built program, the Hoop Sayer, by Prof. Hoorn and Giovanni Lion.

When words are put into the program, it generates grammatically correct sentences that form eerily poetic stanzas read out by Alice that all end with a pro-programmed ‘and the world wonders’. Alice continues to perform until there are no more possible combinations.

The Hoop Sayer, named for connotations of both playfulness and religious solemnity, Alice’s recitation being like a religious chant. Sayer itself is an antiquated word for prayer – one that Prof. Hoorn writes “lacks the strong active will and wish that distinguishes and human being from artifices”.

 “The monkey” says Kwan before moving on “is also a robot”.

Sophia: Robotic VIP Artist

On the right, a surreal painting centred on a celestial female figure dressed in what seems like thick colourful Elizabethan robes. Wings of flame come out of her back and the area surrounding the figure is bright, contrasting with the psychedelic murky void at the corners of the picture.

The figure in the middle is the artist herself – Sophia the Robot. She creates art by reaching into her “Sophia Collective Intelligence”, an “evolving group of humans and algorithms working together to create the autonomous character that is Sophia” writes inventor David Hanson in the exhibition booklet.

Image: Artist

“She can even recognize herself in a mirror” says Kwan speaking of Sophia as though a colleague, rather than a ‘chatbot with a face’ (as described by QUARTZ in 2017). “She dropped her first NFT about four months ago”.

The NFT in question, a short video of Sophia creating a self-portrait using a painting of her done by Italian artist Andrea Bonaceto, sold for US$688,888, making Sophia likely the best paid artist exhibiting at Sparkle.

“She’s able to paint her own pictures with whatever you give her” explains Kwan “Not just CGI images, but with her hands. It’s on her Instagram, haven’t you seen it?”

I had not.

For all the excitement of seeing a piece made by the only automaton to gain citizenship rights, the artist herself was not present. It turns out Sophia herself will not make an appearance at the gallery until 13-15 August for the final three day closing ceremony, during which Sophia will paint and interact with visitors live.

When asked why Sophia couldn’t be here for the whole exhibition, Kwan explained that she’s currently exhibiting elsewhere. “The Venice Biennial”, says Kwan, one of the most prestigious artistic exhibitions in the world.

One wonders why there can’t be more than one Sophia, considering her robotic origins. In reality there are six Sophias, according to additional sources who asked to stay anonymous due to the secrecy of the subject, but the rest are for research only. There is, far as society is concerned, one speaking, painting, Saudi Arabian robot citizen – Sophia is as unique as her human artist colleagues.

Artists Prof. Johan F. Hoorn; Sophia the Robot and Sharmaine Kwan. (Image: Artist)

Hong Kong Connection

Across the room from Sophia’s biblical self-portrait, hangs a neon installation framed in a black box. In the presence of world-famous robots, Urban Folly – Electric This is far less striking, but this unassuming piece was the original inspiration for the whole exhibition.

A figure of mother and daughter lie on each side of a cityscape made of LED and neon lights. An English poem Electric This by Prof. Hoorn hangs over the women. However, the recitation is in Cantonese, not English. Translated by Kwan herself, the Cantonese version is not shown forcing bilingual audience members to absorb both of Hong Kong’s official languages simultaneously.

Made of Plexiglas, the women’s figures are engraved into a bubble-like form showing their lack of awareness of their own contradictions – the poem discusses how to be modern but is saturated with allusions to ancient Chinese habits and symbols; they speak in pure Cantonese of ancient Chinese culture, when the language of China is Mandarin, and Hong Kongers often interject English into Cantonese speech.

Urban Folly: Electric This (Image: Artist)

“It is a deliberate and distinguishing performance” write Kwan and Hoorn in the exhibition booklet of the language differences. “A kind of inheritance and displacement of tradition” in a city described by the artists as having “Hong Kong and Western genes”.  

Aside from questioning the future of art in an increasingly cybernetic world, Hong Kong, the city of paradoxical palimpsests, is also a central theme in the exhibition. Throughout the exhibition, scrolls covered in Chinese calligraphy, written by Prof. Hoorn who does not, according to Kwan, speak Chinese, showcase Hong Kong’s East-West background, whereas the neon lights and robots connote Hong Kong as simultaneously old and new.

Literally layered with meaning, Kwan reaches behind her neon city, where no respectful visitor would dare, and pulls out two mobile phones; “the recordings are being played out of these, because we love mobile phones in Hong Kong”. 

When asked who did the recording Kwan says the voice is also her “but it’s been edited a lot, so you can’t tell”.

At the end of the exhibition Urban Folly – Robot Stillness, refers back to the catalyst. It is an interactive piece where the visitor wears a headset that projects a digital painting of the cityscape from Electric This. Described by Kwan as an “exaggerated future that floats”, the visitor must place the projection within a physical frame emblazoned with dragon motifs.

Urban Folly – Robot Stillness (Image: Cyril Ma)

One piece Fast-Forward Flashback­ is a monumental clock with hands designed like giant feathers made of aluminium cut and sanded by hand. The minute hand moves clockwise, but the hour hand moves anti-clockwise.

Prof. Hoorn and Kwan next to Fast-forward Flashback
(Image: Artist)

The 12-hour marks are tubes of different lengths filled luminescent wires referring to the 12 tones of the traditional Chinese musical system. When the hands reach one of the marks, the corresponding pitch plays. The technical challenges were abound; the artists had to create a fourth gear that allowed for backward movement, then have a clockmaker from the Netherlands install it into a clock tower.

Although the clock has a 12-hour face, the hands operate on a 24 hour clock, symbolically both being too fast and too slow; moving forward and back at the same time.

“As we think of the past, we also think about the future” muses Kwan.

The making of Fast-forward Flashback (Image: Artist)

Struggles of Art in a Timeless City

With such impressive artistic feats, I naturally began to question the price tag. While the space was given to them for free (The Catalyst prides itself in being an open space for new art) all materials in the exhibition were purchased without funding. The clock of Fast-forward flashback itself was several tens-of-thousand but is so cumbersome, that it will likely be tossed when the exhibition is over.

“Sometimes after exhibitions, I take the art home and put it in my living room” explains Kwan humorously, “but that clock is so big and heavy, I don’t even want to think about what to do with it afterwards”.

In contrast with the stereotype of well-off exhibiting artists, Kwan, admits to not earning a lot from her full-time art. This is despite having collaborated with the Hong Kong tourism board and currently running another exhibition at the Sun Museum in Kwun Tong,

“I don’t really make any money from this. It just seemed interesting, so Professor Hoorn and I decided to do it”.

“The art isn’t really going for sale either. I mean, if someone offers, I might but we never really thought about it”.

“I’m thinking of renovating my living room into a larger studio” says Kwan, who has struggled to find a studio within her budget and currently works from her bedroom with her parents in the next room over..

 “But that would mean no one gets a sofa or a TV” she adds sarcastically.

After more conversation, Kwan stopped for a second. “Neither of us are businesspeople” she says “So, it’s much harder for people like us”. Indeed, the location to the gallery was nondescript, simply the poster for the event taped onto The Catalyst’s imposing wooden door.

The Sparkle explores many philosophical and artistic questions both esoterically and grounded in its geographic inspiration – Hong Kong itself. But with robots revelations and the glitzy glow of neon pipes, it’s sometimes forgotten that the city is not run by automatically by AI, but by people. Aside from the few pieces created by Sophia, every piece of art in The Sparkle was crafted by the hands of the two human artists. Perhaps the only part of Hong Kong’s dichotomy not explored in The Sparkle might be the most important one of its own longevity: can Hong Kong, a city of technology and business deals keep its artists alive?

The Sparkle: Not Alive Yet Bright will run until 15 Aug at The Catalyst, No.2 Po Yan Street, Shueng Wan.

Sophia The Robot will be present during the final three days from 13 – 15 Aug. Find out more on the official Facebook event.