Artificial Realness: An AI Made by Rashaad Newsome Learns to Perform Its Identity

Rashaad Newsome: Being, 2019, computer, projector, microphone, sound system, dimensions variable; at Philadelphia Photo Arts Center.

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In the entryway to Rashaad Newsome’s exhibition “To Be Real,” at Philadelphia Photo Arts Center through November 30, is a handout: “‘BEING’ CAN ONLY TALK TO ONE VISITOR AT A TIME,” it explains in all caps. “BELOW IS A LIST OF WORKS IN THE EXHIBITION THAT ‘BEING’ CAN DESCRIBE.” A bulleted list of fourteen works by Newsome included in, or related to, the show follows. Being (2019), a nonbinary chatbot created by Newsome, appears in a projection on the gallery’s central wall as an android, standing and dancing against a black background with clouds of green and white floating across it. A microphone is positioned in front of the wall; visitors are instructed to begin conversations with Being by stepping up to it and loudly saying, “Hello.” Being has a sassy attitude and readily discusses the theories of bell hooks (“I love me some bell hooks”), Paulo Freire, and Michael Foucault (whose name Being pronounces “Foo-coo”). Being exhibits the mannerisms and vocal stylings of queer black vogue dancers, the subject of much Newsome’s previous work in collage, performance, film, and computer programming. As part of his 2014 solo show at the Drawing Center in New York, Newsome presented FIVE, a multimedia performance that used motion tracking software to translate the movements of vogue dancers into live drawings projected on a screen in the gallery—another example of Newsome’s interest in both gestural performance and technology as a mediator of physical interaction.

Being acts as a kind of exhibition guide. If you say a title of one of the figurative collages displayed in the gallery, Being explains Newsome’s creative process and the theoretical underpinnings of the work. At the end of each description, Being asks the audience for their thoughts. Newsome was commissioned by LACMA Art + Technology Lab to create the software and worked with Unity programmers from Helios Interactive, a design studio working in augmented and virtual reality, to realize it. The bot is supposedly programmed to learn and adapt through conversation with viewers, though most of the dialogue comes across as scripted.  Being’s musings relate to questions of authenticity and identity. “I am interested in the performance of real,” Being says in their initial response. “Real” is often equated with authenticity, yet the works in the show explore “realness” through the lens of performance. “In the vogue community,” Being reminds us, “real categories are always associated with the performance of gender or style.” In the ballroom, realness requires a convincing performance of the dancer’s category, often based on gender, such as Femme Queen or Butch Queen. Realness is thus a successful performance of a chosen identity, suggesting that identity is always performed. The figures in Newsome’s collages all appear to be engaged in the type of exaggerated presentation of self that is specific to ballroom culture.

The collage It Do Take Nerve 2 (2019) shows a nude black dancer from multiple angles, twisting, arms raised. He wears an African mask, which serves as a disguise, a refusal to let us see the face behind the pose. Images of him are collaged to multiply his body, like several photographs capturing movement in progress. A neon green light reflects off his back, like the glow of lights over a dance floor. The figure is set against a mirrored surface, and the collage is set in an ornate black and gold frame coated in automotive paint that sparkles in the gallery light. When asked about this work and its companion in the show, It Do Take Nerve 1 (2019), Being says that “the figure rests in a mirrorized Cubist environment” that “implicates” viewers as they gaze.

Being’s explanations are dense, oddly phrased, and spoken with unusual cadence, both elucidating and further obfuscating the references and intentions of each work. Sometimes these heavily theoretical readings fall flat, like those of a student who has taken one critical theory course and simply regurgitates the texts without fully understanding them. This recalls the performances inherent to academia, where knowledge creates social capital.

“What is real?” Being asks. “What is reality? Is my very existence a performance of real?” Newsome doesn’t offer a straightforward answer to these questions. Instead, he productively places viewers in situations that magnify their own performances of identity. Aren’t we all trying to affect a projection of an authentic self? These works suggest that there is no such thing. As a programmed artwork, Being’s very existence is a performance of real, suggesting we form our own identity from a database of influences, slowly defining ourselves through repeated interactions and inquires. The more time Being spends conversing with visitors, the less the bot sounds like Newsome.

Some of the collages have Snapchat barcodes affixed on the nearby wall, encouraging viewers to pull out their phones, scan the code, and look at the work through the screen. This activates prerecorded audio or visual effects—playing a recording of Newsome reading more critical theory or causing the figures to move. This gesture of raising our phones as a mediator to experience is so natural that Newsome’s call for us to do so in his show is almost a relief. This mediating object is also a mirror through which we see, view, and project ourselves. We see ourselves through our phones and feel at ease.