conversations – Interview by Margaret Murphy – 23.01.2023
ZIYANG WU: INVESTIGATING THE ALGORITHM
AI AND WEB 3.0
New York-based artist Ziyang Wu spends his time exploring the invisible forces of the virtual world. Data and algorithms ubiquitously micro-alienate and reconstruct humans in the highly globalized post-Internet society. In his practice, the artist uses Artificial Intelligence, user-based Internet algorithms, and episodic video to create cutting-edge NFTs. Ziyang Wu currently teaches at the School of Visual Arts and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He is a member of the Experiment on Art and Technology Track at NEW INC, New Museum.
Margaret Murphy, Head of Community, spoke with Ziyang Wu about his creative process with AI, the ever-looming presence of the algorithm, and what he looks forward to in the future of Web 3.0.
Margaret Murphy: What is most challenging about working with Artificial Intelligence in your art?
Ziyang Wu: The most challenging part for me is how to construct an interesting and conceptually challenging system to create a meaningful "simulation." This ranges from using unique datasets to train AI, to juxtaposing a series of training models like ones used in video game fields, to reverse-engineering existing models containing certain algorithmic or engineering biases.
I’m not interested in using any AI tool where it comes with a pre-trained AI. If you use any pre-trained AI, no matter how many interesting keywords you input, or what kind of style it’s learning from, you are essentially just generating beautiful visual or audio experiences that are pre-determined by others. The result is not going to be new or unique since nothing unprecedented has been created.
MM: Recent discussions around Artificial Intelligence have asked if its use will mean "the end of Human Artists." What are your thoughts on this?
ZW: I don’t think that the art world will let "the end of Human Artists" happen as they will need this system to keep running. If we think of photography and the conversation around how it will bring "the end of painting" in the past, for me, it is a similar discussion right now.
MM: And what do you say to those who criticize using AI in art?
ZW: I think it depends on what kind of artist they are. If the artist uses AI as a tool like text-to-image generation, it could be used to generate ideas quickly, very similar to how artists use collages to come up with ideas. It is also a way to democratize art making, especially for those who are interested in making art but might not have the technical skills, like painting, to execute.
If the artist is a creative technologist, they will explore and invent new code, training models, and datasets, which could be shared as tools for more people to use. They will also further explore more interesting potentials of AI technology.
If the artist treats AI as a subject matter, they will focus on the problem that AI and algorithms generate. The artist will raise questions about it or propose alternative models to challenge or substitute existing ones. This is exactly what my NFT, "A Woman with the Technology," was trying to explore.
MM: Creating art for the Metaverse incorporates new technologies and techniques otherwise not previously explored such as varied spatial definitions, scale, and interactivity. What about this do you find most fulfilling? Most challenging?
ZW: Whenever I’m using a so-called new technology, I’m trying to be very aware of its medium specificity, rather than only focusing on the spectacle it creates. As someone who is excited about (but also hyper-critical of) all technological developments, it not only gives us more tools to play with and more dimensions to explore but also the themes and topics to focus on.
MM: What got you into making NFTs?
ZW: The first time I minted an NFT was in May of 2021 when the NFT marketplace Foundation invited me to be a contributing artist. This was in conjunction with the launch of their 3D feature in which an artist could upload and mint a 3D model as a glb file and view it via Augmented Reality. Of course, I’ve been observing and following all kinds of news and events since 2019, but haven’t gotten involved until this launch.
NFTs offer so many new possibilities for artists to create and have a more sustainable practice. For example, let’s say there is a complex digital image that consists of 20 separate layers in Photoshop. We can mint each layer as an NFT, and authorize the collector with the right to change the layer they own. Every time a single layer is changed, the whole image changes. Since these changes are "real", encrypted, and irreversible, this "never-ending" simulation could reach its massive creative potential and offer a new sphere by merging art-making, collecting, and participation. Moreover, a lot of generative and live-simulation works have previously been difficult to sell. Many of these works live on the Internet and used to be only commissioned and collected in small numbers by bigger institutions. However, after being minted as NFTs, they become the "one and only" entities that are favorable to collect while keeping the uniqueness of their ever-changing nature.
I’m also very inspired by many NFT communities where artists, collectors, creative developers, curators, people from the tech world, etc. are regularly having community-based meetings and events both online and in IRL. I believe it will further bring people together and eliminate the hierarchies that often exist in the traditional art world.
MM: "A Woman with the Technology" is an excerpt of a larger series based on conversations with an AI chatbot exploring the filter bubble, the phenomenon of an Internet user encountering only information and opinions that conform to and reinforce their own beliefs. Can you talk through the steps that led from a text-based exchange with an AI chatbot to the output of this piece?
ZW: By training an AI chatbot whose knowledge equals my knowledge, and making an animated video based on the content generated, "A Woman with the Technology" examines how an individual’s online experience becomes personalized by the Internet algorithm and creates the filter bubble. As a result, users become separated from information that disagrees with their viewpoints, effectively isolating them in their own cultural and ideological bubbles.
The project started with a 3-month long recording of all my online experiences. A series of keywords closely related to my daily focus is selected and used as initial input on various media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. The keywords include censorship, surveillance, alienation, absurdity, Neocolonialism, post-truth, trade war, Asian experience, 5G, artificial intelligence, mixed reality, K-pop, and identity, among others. I log in to these media every day, giving likes and leaving comments on the posts and videos I’m interested in. The daily searching experiences are screen-recorded and organized.
At the end of the project, I used all the collected data to train an AI chatbot, who can be seen as an AI version of myself, or a self that was constructed by the Internet algorithm. The data that were used to train the AI include all the captions from each post, subtitles from YouTube videos, as well as all the textual information generated from the images and videos using another AI application called dense caption image detection. This part of the project was in collaboration with artist and creative technologist Yang Wang.
After the AI chatbot was trained, I googled "How to write a film script"? It listed a series of questions that needed to be asked to write "a successful script". I asked the AI chatbot all the listed questions. It then generated a futuristic and dystopian film script and I made a 12-episode animated video based on the AI-generated script.
MM: Your work focuses on a term you’ve coined “post-Internet micro-alienation,” which often results in art that both celebrates and critiques the virtual world, data, and algorithms. Can you expand upon these celebrations and criticisms as they relate to your art?
ZW: My artistic interests started with macro-alienation, which occurs on a global scale through political and economic oppression. My past multimedia works "The Story of the Pig" and "Carnival 2020" addressed this through slaughtered bodies and killed spirits, a world related to George Orwell’s "1984," and the critical examination of the Social Credit System – a "Black Mirror" reality. Other works refer to the invisible forces (such as algorithm-based commercials and data surveillance) that dissemble an individual’s value and rationality in their everyday lives or micro-alienation. In my animated video "The Last Subway," for example, I created the narrative of a fictitious video game protagonist ZiyangMon (Referring to Pokemon Go) who travels between mock newscasts, the Japanese pop music video PPAP, surveillance systems, and Virtual Reality footage to hint at how the virtual world increasingly influences human consciousness on a micro scale in our highly globalized and digitized society.
In the current post-Internet era, micro-alienation consistently appears with new faces and generates new dominating powers that have never been before. In today’s world, everyone is becoming a cyborg. Smartphones have truly become part of the human body. Manipulative algorithms are implemented everywhere: social media, search engines, streaming services, surveillance, the healthcare system, and so on. Alienation indeed reconstructs us more microscopically and is becoming more ubiquitous and harder to detect.
MM: Tell us about your work "Where Did Macy Go?"in this context.
ZW: "Where Did Macy Go?" is an 11-episode animated film. The piece discusses the collapse and emergence of community structures after decollectivization, Confucian obedience vs. social obedience, the new tele-republic of home, “mask politics” and social justice under the pandemic. During the pandemic when everyone was simply exhibiting work online, I preferred to take advantage of what the Internet does the best: sharing and re-distributing. I posted all the videos on TikTok, one episode per week for a total of about three months. I was hoping to create this kind of excitement similar to the anticipation of a weekly TV episode. I asked all my friends to share it and even bought an advertisement and created Instagram filters and AR works, which were conceptual choices in favor of even further distribution. So far, the filters have been used over 300,000 times. In these choices, I am appropriating and “celebrating” an advertising strategy, while also critiquing it.
MM: How does your artwork, specifically "A Woman with the Technology" explore the concept of digital power structures?
ZW: The initial inspiration for "A Woman with the Technology" comes from the ubiquitous algorithmic manipulation in daily life. For example, right after you browse a product on Amazon, you will see similar product recommendations on Instagram the next second. Or the leftists in the United States rarely receive right-wing information on media platforms (and vice versa). Having lived in the U.S. for over seven years as an immigrant, I realized I was living and being "protected" under the "blue" and democratic "bubble" – one that I support and align with ideologically. I started to think about what kind of person I was re-constructed by this current bubble I’m in and how biased I could be without knowing people from other bubbles.
Another inspiration was from the book titled "Algorithms of Oppression" by Safiya Umoja Noble. The book's cover is a Google search bar with the text "Why black women are", and the suggested words are angry, loud, mean, lazy, annoying, insecure, etc. This is a very vivid example of how we are involved and affected by algorithmic bias in our daily lives. Then I started from an individual’s perspective, explored my current state of existence (or what the Internet algorithm thought about who I was or what was interested in), and reconstruct "my filter bubbles," to complete a deep research and exploration of the digital power structure.
The research and data-collecting phase of "A Woman with the Technology" were also very interesting. Beginning day two, I began to receive related posts and videos about Andrew Yang, the former Democratic presidential candidate for the 2020 U.S. election. Initially, I had no idea who he was and I think that the algorithm assumed I was Asian based on my browsing history. It thought I might be his potential voter, despite being ineligible, and would not vote for him. The idea and mechanism of "supporting the candidate based on the same race" are funny and ridiculous despite having functions.
MM: That's alarming that it only took two days for the algorithm to make those assumptions. Continuing our discussion about augmented and virtual reality, where do you expect the future of Metaverse Art to go? What about it excites you?
ZW: If we are talking about the larger scope of Metaverse, such as the seven layers of Metaverse coined by Jon Radoff, countless aspects excite me. Or, to put it another way, we have been exploring all these aspects for a long time as artists, designers, and engineers. 5G/6G, micro-electromechanical systems, and the cloud are the Infrastructure Layer. Digital wearables and haptic gloves are the Human Interface Layer. AI agents, blockchains, and DAOs are the Decentralization Layer. VR, AR, and XR are the Spatial Computing Layer. Tools and assets for design and new workflows are the Creator Economy Layer. Social curating and rating are the Discovery Layer. Social media, shopping, and games are the Experience Layer.
MM: What do you consider to be the best NFT Art?
ZW: For me, the best NFT artworks so far, are the so-called crypto-native works that deploy the inherent features, rules, and spirit of blockchain. For example, all the generative NFT works that have been created using certain meaningful data, or that could be changed over time based on the collector’s interaction such as Pak’s "Merge" or Dom Hofmann’s "Loot." That is not to say these kinds of strategies didn't exist previously – digital and internet artists have been working this way for over three decades. But the scope is very different. A super successful crypto-native NFT project could attract many people and collectors to become a part of the work, while a socially engaged or social intervention net-art piece might be only looked at by a small group of people, and therefore the ultimate goal of the project might not be achieved. This is one thing that excites me the most about the next generation of NFT works: where all the infrastructures are better built, and there could be more socially engaged and meaningful work happening that could influence a larger group of audiences.
MM: What excites you about the future of Web 3.0?
ZW: What excites me in the near future, is when more and better Web 3.0 infrastructure is built. Imagine when you purchase an NFT shoe, it could be imported in any Metaverse game, traded on any NFT marketplace, and “worn” via any augmented reality application. This is the future that Web 3.0 promises people to completely destroy the control from Web 2.0 giants. I very much look forward to this happening one day--although I’m not very confident.
MM: What have you been working on recently?
ZW: Recently, I have been exploring AI generation applications such as Dreamfields 3D, where you generate textured 3D models from simple texts. Although it is still in an early phase, and I haven’t been able to train using a unique dataset, I’m very excited about its potential. Everyone could generate a complex 3D world/Metaverse simply using texts and from their imaginations.
Ziyang Wu is an artist based in New York, currently teaching at the School of Visual Arts and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and is a member of the Experiment on Art and Technology Track at NEW INC, New Museum. His recent practices examine how the virtual world, data and algorithm as invisible forces ubiquitously micro-alienates and reconstructs human in the highly globalized post-Internet society.