Can art do philosophy?


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Helen Knowles’ The Trial of Superdebthunterbot is a video and performance art project that directly poses a philosophical question: can an artificial intelligence algorithm be held legally and morally responsible for the consequences of its actions? She has actualised this idea in an imaginary algorithm that has “learnt” that student loan debt recovery is optimised by offering defaulters high risk job opportunities. This has led to the deaths of two of them in an unregulated medical trial. Some sceptics might ask: is this an artwork or an educational  discussion trigger or can it be both?  Whatever the answer, it is a welcome counter to the decline in public engagement with philosophical debate. Philosophy’s media profile has become more muted and we lack the present day equivalents of Bertrand Russel or Jean Paul Sartre to inspire us.

In the current climate an understanding of what philosophy can contribute is confused or nonexistent but there is still a hunger to get some clarity on the big, intractable problems we face. A teenage applicant for A level Philosophy I interviewed once told me he thought it could answer the big mysteries of life. “Like what?” I asked. Unsure he suggested “Why dinosaurs became extinct?” Rather than plough through some Nietzsche or Debord, maybe exposure to this kind of art project would have clarified his understanding of philosophical debate.

Like many of this year’s Goldsmith MFA graduates I have lauded in earlier blogposts, Knowles takes it for granted that art can be defined without preconceived boundaries and is determined to focus on her political concerns . This was not so obvious a route for earlier generations of budding artists, even those born long after the innovations of the Dadaists and Situationists. Jeremy Deller remarks on his epiphany in New York meeting Andy Warhol amid the happenings in The Factory in 1986 when he realised that the artist is permitted to do anything and call it art.  All artists must have a narcissistic streak, after all they are given permission and money to hone and pursue a single-minded, personal vision and realise this in whatever fashion they desire.  What is so life affirming about Deller is that he uses this artistic freedom to relinquish control to the disempowered. Among his many democratically inspired art projects I was particularly struck by his decision to delegate to a group of Spanish teenagers the filming of his organised street processions for minority groups in Santander which he then exhibited at his Turner Prize winning show.

Knowles has carried off a similar trick by stepping aside and involving a wide range of people in the questions she is pursuing through her art. A mixture of actors and law experts took roles in the mock trial held in Southwark Crown court to promote its authenticity.  Many groups including law students have seen either the performance or the 45 minute video record of the trial and been stimulated to discuss the issues it raises. A fellow student Daniel Dressel constructed a computer which is wheeled into the witness-box giving the performance a 1960’s Situationist-style absurdity. At an event at the Zabludovicz Collection last month a “jury” that included legal and AI experts as well as laypeople deliberated on the case for 90 minutes. They were surrounded by an invited audience who also contributed to the debate. This commitment to involving others is a perfect fit with the wider educational aims of the project. I learnt from one expert that we might build in a process whereby the algorithm learns from its fatal mistakes and corrects its “immoral” behaviour.

This scenario is so far removed from current legal practice that I would guess that academic law researchers would have failed to attract funding for such a project. So if only artists like Knowles can achieve this, by default we are dependent on them to advance the crucial public debate. In this sense, art not only can do, it must do, philosophy. Debord would say we must see the world without boundaries as a totality otherwise we will get suckered by the illusion of the Spectacle.

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