An extended review of the ZKM exhibition BioMedia
by Yannick Fritz as part of the HfG Rundgang 2022.


In the exhibition BioMedia: The Age of Media with Life-like Behavior, currently on view at the Center for Arts and Media Karlsruhe (ZKM), Jeroen van der Most and Peter van der Putten present their work Letters from Nature (2020). The core of the work is a series of “letters from nature” consisting of text generated by OpenAI’s model GPT-3. They are addressed to global policy makers such as Trump, Xi Jinping, or Putin (amongst others), and are supposedly written from the perspective of “nature.” They express suffering in the wake of climate change and are signed by entities such as an “ice cap” or a Hawaiian coral reef. As such, the artwork, as well as the exhibition, is exemplary for the recent interest in the nonhuman, its relation to the human, its (supposedly) lively and agentic qualities and its role in the Anthropocene.

While the initial motivation – to shed light on the ongoing ecological crisis – seems compelling, there are a number of issues related to this artwork that speak to larger misconceptions in the field of AI art and machine learning more generally. Starting with a short detour through the historic dimension of anthropomorphization and an examination of the artists’ stance concerning their work, this essay situates Letters from Nature in the discourse surrounding new materialism. Here the essay highlights the advocates of object-oriented ontology (OOO), Jane Bennett’s vital materialism, Karen Barad’s agential realism and Bruno Latour’s parliament of things in the wider context of the Anthropocene debate.

By stressing the shortcomings of these theories and the human and material costs of AI, the essay draws a historical connection between the mechanical philosophy of the seventeenth century and contemporary imaginaries surrounding AI, specifically engaging with the work of  Carolyn Merchant and Silvia Federici. Eventually, the historicity of scientific paradigms, models of nature and also AI, which are found in neomaterialism as well as in the BioMedia exhibition, is made apparent.

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Yannick Fritz holds a BA in European Media Studies from University of Potsdam where he wrote a Bachelor’s thesis focusing on myth and materiality of media. After an exchange semester in Hong Kong where he engaged with the broader field of social sciences, he is continuing his research at Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design studying Media Philosophy and Art Research. In Karlsruhe he deepens his studies of materialist approaches to media and focuses on critical AI studies, algorithmic governance, digital culture and contemporary art.