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Oscar Santillán speaks on land art and “Antimundo” with Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence

The Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence (DAI) held a lecture by 2022–23 Lunder Institute Senior Fellow Oscar Santillán last Thursday, Nov. 10 in Ostrove Auditorium.

Santillán gave overviews of his recent projects and what he plans to work on during his time with the Lunder Institute. His work combines the technology of artificial intelligence with artistic choices and poignant statements about “how to live together, recognize the agency of earth itself, and realize that the ethics that we use for one space are very different than those we use for the other space.” 

These ideas involve all forms of art, from digitally-generated work with artificial intelligence to land art that brings viewers to a remote island where Santillán has been visiting and working for several years. 

Director of the Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence Amanda Stent shared her opinion on Santillán’s presentation of his work so far. 

“Oscar’s work at the intersection of technology, society, and the environment is thought-provoking and deeply creative,” she said. 

Santillán’s website and the name of his project that spans global locations and artistic, humanistic, and scientific endeavors is called “Antimundo.”

“We look forward to kicking off Colby’s Year of the Arts with Oscar’s ‘Antimundo’ JanPlan and to collaborating further with faculty and students from the visual and performing arts on ways that AI can support and enable creativity, and on ways the arts can inform conversations around AI,” Stent explained. 

With his ideas on claims to land and the application of AI, Santillán is working on several projects, such as an interspecies biological computer and a mountain in Britain with an intentional “decentralized form of cognition.” 

Santillán said he is interested in colonial representations and possession of land, “the tension between territory and representation, or what we see as cartography on a map, what we call landscape in a painting.” 

He has explored this idea with the concept of terra incognita and continues to explore the meaning and feelings of a particular place with his work on Little Fort Island, owned by the Holt-Smithson Foundation, which currently sponsors The Island Project — Point of Departure.

Santillán’s proposal for this project is to figure out how to sense the island, working with his ideas of sensoriality and physicality, things he said, “that we were missing in the virtual overload of the pandemic.” 

This technology-driven approach to recording the essence of the island will involve translating natural environments into accessible tech platforms using artificial intelligence in ways yet to be decided. 

Santillán’s project centers around the question, “How do we approach this ecological entity, and how do we sense it in a virtual way?” This process brings Santillán to gather data from the ecosystem and sensors to see how it works. 

He calls the project in its current form “a rough draft of something that needs to be communally and collaboratively shaped” and looks forward to involving students and as many collaborators as needed to see what they bring to the island. Together, Santillán said, they will work to “sense” it for the ultimate output of the project.

“Once all this data’s been gathered, [the] flow of data coming in from the island, what do we do with it depends on the different skill sets of people who join the adventure,” he explained. 

Interested students can join a JanPlan course Santillán will teach, named after the title of his project, “Antimundo.” The multidisciplinary introduction to art and AI can apply to many majors and fields of study. 

Assistant Professor of Anthropology Farah Qureshi weighed in on  this intersection. 

“Ultimately, the main point of the anthropological perspective of AI is that we can actually understand the social consequences,” she explained. “Going along with the digitized systems, we’re often abstracting the social elements.”

These social elements include topics of justice and equality and their opposites. 

“Anthropology comes in because you need to be following what happens to people in these systems,” she said, mentioning her research on economics, anthropology, and artificial intelligence. 

Qureshi is teaching a course next semester called AI and Inequality, which will cover topics such as inequalities in technology, data culture, and automated decision-making. She anticipates a nuanced discussion on how digital platforms that automate labor take the humanity out of work in some sectors. The human perspective on artificial intelligence can be explored in classroom discussions more extensively than in the platforms where these interactions happen. 

Future collaboration in the subject of artificial intelligence will certainly involve the Anthropology Department through courses and research but will likely expand across several departments. 

DAI and the Lunder Institute involve great efforts of collaboration across many disciplines, and many participants and leaders in the initiatives have reiterated this intent. 

“We are grateful to Jacqueline Terrassa and Erica Wall for inviting us into collaboration,” Stent said.

Jacqueline Terrassa is the Director of the Colby College Museum of Art, and Erica Wall works in the Museum as the Director of the Lunder Institute for American Art. Students, faculty, and fans of the arts will have plenty of opportunities to watch this collaborative project unfold over the rest of the academic year.

~ Molly George `23

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