“We have the time of our lives” reads an ocean-blue illumination right at the entrance to Athens’ largest public park, Pedion tou Areos, the temporary home of Plásmata, a digital art exhibition of giant proportions.
Placed a few steps from a monument to King Constantine I, the sign – courtesy of Danish artist group Superflex and reminiscent of garish commercial billboards – appears to be taking on a sarcastic tone. Bombarded as we are with such advertisements, tailor-made via powerful algorithms and full of clichés, what other choice do we have but to believe them?
Commissioned and produced by Onassis Stegi and curated by Future Everything, Plásmata is Europe’s largest outdoor digital art exhibition. The show picks up on last year’s edition, “You and AI: Through the Algorithmic Lens,” which explored how algorithms impact and reshape society and our perception of the world. This time, the experimental exhibition seeks to probe the notion of the body – whether individual or collective, human or non-human, or planetary – and its interaction with technology.
In addition to meaning “creatures” in Greek, “plásmata” comes from the root “plasso”, which means to make or mold. As such, the 25 new large-scale works explore how we use data to create different kinds of creatures and identities. , to make and re-make versions of ourselves.
Among the works dealing with the intervention of technology in the human body – and, it seems, ringing the alarm bells – is “Happiness” by Dutch theater maker and visual artist Dries Verhoeven. In this installation, a humanoid robot manages an abandoned pharmacy, informing visitors of various drugs, antidepressants and painkillers that can alter and enhance their emotional reality.
“It is a sign of our times that, in our desire for happiness, we increasingly place our hopes in the artificial realm, in AI, in drugs and other substitutes for nature,” Verhoeven told Euronews.
Other works, however, adopt a more optimistic tone. At first glance, “Divided” by Spanish artist SpY seems to be about separation; an enormous red and illuminated sphere, evoking the earth, is divided into two halves.
“By depicting a divided land, I try to suggest how differences might be understood not as a form of separation, but rather as a quality, the quality of complementarity,” explains SpY.
The artwork, he explains, is a response to how “algorithms have taken over many aspects of our lives.”
“Where there used to be focus, we now have distraction, automatic reactions instead of thinking,” he postulates, “and, more importantly, confrontation and isolation have replaced the empathy”.
Visitors can walk through the luminous corridor between the hemispheres, become part of the artwork themselves, and experience what SpY describes as “a moment to escape this new reality”, engage in a rare moment of conviviality. “The new digital reality may be widening the gap between all of us, but we are still part of one being,” he reflects.
These themes are taken up by Seoul-based collective Kimchi and Chips, whose light installation “Another Moon” sees sunlight collected by solar cells during the day, and projected into the sky at night to create a hovering artificial moon. 70 m above the ground. Visible from up to 1 km away, “Another Moon” creates a focal point, connecting people in physical space – unlike the separation imposed by the coronavirus pandemic and digital solutions that have replaced physical interaction.
Alongside the artworks, digital video channel NOWNESS is hosting an algorithm-free screening of short films in the park’s former amphitheater, disrupting the digital platform’s usual practice of offering personalized content determined by an algorithm – returning viewers to a collective viewing experience instead.
This collectivity is reinforced not only by the fact that the show is free and open to all, but by its specific location in a public park. Pedion tou Areos began as an army training ground and is now the largest public park in the Greek capital.
“How can you resist meeting, being together, experiencing the magic of the crowd? That’s why we cherish Pedion tou Areos. Because there, we realize what a city means… And as different as our starting points are, there are common needs and desires that interconnect us”, explains Afroditi Panagiotakou, director of the culture at the Onassis Foundation, on the choice of Pedion. tou Areos as the venue for the exhibition.
Locating Plásmata in such a public space is intended not only to create a sense of connection, but also to bring into the public domain what Papadimitriou and Tsiavos describe as “urgent conversations” about ethical issues surrounding AI, data and monitoring.
“These forums allow people to ask important questions… Expand and expand the boundaries of public space and public discourse,” they explain.
As we leave the park, passing the bright blue Superflex sign, we may wonder, “Are we really having a good time?”