How To Change the Future: Goethe-Institut's Dreaming New Worlds Project

Dreaming New Worlds ©Goethe-Institut Nigeria

By Tobe Otuogbodor

Goethe-Institut's Dreaming New Worlds project is not providing answers. It was designed to provide the questions that desperately need to be asked. Africa’s young population is expanding exponentially (by 2050 half of the people on this continent will be younger than 25) and the creative sector is expanding right along with it. In addition to this, the march of technology has never seemed more unstoppable; our age is marked by a multitude of digital triumphs that were previously only housed in imaginations (and many more that were, up until recently, wholly unimaginable). The confluence point of these three factors has created a fertile bank for the germination and cultivation of the most incredible ideas ever conceived. The Dreaming New Worlds project will serve as that river-bank; the place where discussions about the future of technology in the African art space will not only be held but encouraged. Participants will be spurred to answer some of the pressing questions of our time concerning the interface between art, technology and our sociality. The project will give room to the most eclectic, undefinable minds of our time to come and meet their peers. To observe, inspect, question the thoughts and work of the people they did not know were like them. The point is, technology will not stop, and neither will art nor Africa. The question is how can we, bearing all this in mind, build a new world? The answer is not something we have yet, but we know that we need to begin with a dream.
At the present moment, it would be impossible to discuss the role technology plays in art without bringing up AI. And though that will be discussed extensively it should not be treated as the sole new technological frontier in the art space. Applications of and experimentations with quantum computing for instance are of particular interest to the project. The ability to create in minutes what would take digital computers (the ones we have in our homes right now) years creates a world of infinite potential. Artists are already using quantum computing as a tool to convey the truest form of their art. Libby Heaney’s piece touch is response-ability, a moving, formless, half-minute video rendering of multiple Instagram stories was made using quantum algorithms. And this is only the beginning, quantum computing is a doorway into worlds we cannot even imagine.
While quantum computing represents the most “science-fiction-y” technology (partly because of what it is called) other innovations remain outstanding even though some of them have become so commonplace in just a few years as to seem blasé. Virtual reality and 3-D printing are relatively new technologies that thrust us past the reaches we had assumed were our artistic limits. The Oculus Rift virtual reality gaming system is readily available to order online so we have forgotten how it felt like when it was first announced. Artists are able to drop their audiences right in the middle of their art. They quite literally make space for their witnesses in their own worlds. Appreciation of how far we have come is a necessary step to take in order to prepare one’s mind to consider the infinite distances we can still travel.
And that brings us back to the topic of “AI”. The quotation marks are necessary because the name (artificial intelligence) is something of a misnomer as many have pointed out. The technology is not sentient, it does not create; it is not intelligent. And herein lies a lot of the conversation around this topic. What place does a potential “plagiarism machine” have in art?
Several of the thinkers (researchers, art/culture historians, creative technologists, and creators) that have been involved with the Dreaming New Worlds project have been keen to discuss and consider this question. Fabian Offert, an Assistant Professor for the History and Theory of the Digital Humanities at the University of California, Santa Barbara, provided one of the most interesting ideas of the discussions so far: “AI art, as a genre, is dead. As glitches and constraints (e.g. mode collapse in Generative Adversarial Networks, compression artefacts in variational autoencode) are eliminated, and as massive meta-datasets of Internet-vernacular imagery become the new norm, the aesthetic contact surface of machine learning vanishes.” Put simply, the fact that so much internet-based imagery has been developed means that the algorithms will have nothing to crib from. A human hand must direct the art, they can no longer be completely “algorithmically generated images.”
His argument aligns with the prevailing idea of the ideal for AI-integration. Many artists consider the best way to use this technology is just another art tool. This can work, as has been shown by many artists (Anna Ridler in her Fall of the House of Usher; Linda Dounia’s Dust is hard to breathe) but there is no sure-fire, at the moment, to prevent the issue of plagiarism.
A dimension that cannot be ignored is the opportunity for economic empowerment that “selling art on the internet” provides to many African artists. Take for instance the NFT boom a few years ago. It has been rightly criticised for the overall level of grift involved, the volatility of the investments, the adverse effects of mining on the environment, etc but it did provide a revenue stream for artists who ordinarily would not have had an opportunity to earn anything close to a living from their labour. Aforementioned Senegalese artist Linda Dounia was able to sell some of her work as NFT’s as was Nigerian digital art sensation Anthony Azekwoh who rose to prominence in 2021. The key here is to not make the common mistake of separate creators from the economic realities of this continent and thankfully the very nature of the Dreaming New Worlds project ensures this matter remains central to all thinking.
Artistic and filmmaker, Femi Johnson, speaks about this holistic consideration frequently. In his Dreaming New Worlds keynote in July 2023, he said, “In a world where boundaries are increasingly blurred, the concept of cultural integration holds immense significance in shaping societies and fostering collective progress. This presentation explores the transformative power of imagination and the harmonisation of tradition and innovation in the context of designing a new Nigeria.” Not only does his idea about cultural integration destroy the gap some try to create between the art and the working artist’s living, it provides us a way to view the new-future of daily art life.
Many times, African artists seek to represent our culture in their art, but is art not a part of that very culture? Should it not be possible, therefore, to live your culture and let that be an art? It seems that there are ways to do so through the embrace of technology. The “blurring of the lines” and the integration of spaces (physical and digital) might be able to provide a method for the artist to seamlessly live their art. To live their life.
This project is about the future. But it really really isn’t. The decisions that will shape that future will be made today. Many have been made yesterday. And the concern is the variegated strains of creators on this continent have no clarity about this. There are questions that must be answered: What are the collaborative practices and opportunities between traditional artistic spaces and the virtual? How will AI fit into the city and its Art locale? What are the new forms of engagement? The New Mediators and parties? Who will answer these questions? And perhaps most importantly: who is already answering them?