JHI Alumni Spotlight—David Rokeby

May 29, 2023 by Sonja Johnston

David Rokeby (Director, BMO Lab and Assistant Professor, Centre for Drama, Theatre & Performance Studies) is an internationally renowned new media, electronic, video and installation artist who has been exploring human relationships with digital machines for over 40 years. His interests range from the issues of digital surveillance to critical examination of the differences between human and artificial intelligence. David was the JHI Artist in Residence for 2018-2019 during the theme year Reading Faces, Reading Minds.

David provides an overview of the project he worked on while at the JHI and some insight into his fellowship experience. He also updates us about his current work.

Can you summarize the project you worked on as the JHI's Artist in Residence?

The project I did for this residency was more of a research project than a finished artwork. I was quite deep in a Canada Council research grant at the time that was intended to allow me to explore the applications of AI for my art practice. In the context of the JHI theme, and a bunch of my previous work in surveillance and image recognition, it seemed logical to look into the AI approaches to classifying facial expressions. It seemed like the most relevant way for me to contribute to the JHI cohort from my particular interests and spheres of knowledge.

What was your general JHI experience like?

I will admit to feeling a bit intimidated at first, as the JHI residency was in effect at the front line of my entry into academia after years of independent art practice. Something I had recently heard became my mantra: “If you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room.” The atmosphere at the weekly lunches was friendly, curious and convivial, and I quickly relaxed into my role. Over the course of the year, I came to understand the unique perspectives that I, as an artist, could offer to this community, and conversely, what I could learn from this heterogenous community of scholars.

How did your time at the JHI influence your artistic practice? Did it influence your thinking around the role of technology in the humanities?

It is a little hard to properly measure the influence of that time on my artistic practice because I was already deeply reconsidering aspects of my artistic practice in the context of the AI research that I was doing. But certainly my time at the JHI spurred me to embrace a role as a communicator about the complex terrain where Artificial Intelligence meets the humanities and culture more broadly. Soon after my major presentation to the JHI community, I had the honour of delivering the inaugural Distinguished Lecture on AI and Creativity at the Vector Institute, and since then, I have continued to regularly give creative lectures and presentations on this topic. What the JHI experience specifically gave me was a confidence that I have a unique perspective to share that is of value to a wide range of thinkers and practitioners in other disciplines.

How do you see the role of Artist-in-Residence programs in facilitating interdisciplinary collaboration and creative inquiry?

As an artist, I have always been very connected to the flux of the present moment, attending to the ways emerging technologies are affecting contemporary life. Engaging with a community of academics, some of whom are immersed in the study of quite ancient sources and social contexts provided a very interesting counterpoint to my very contemporary concerns, and helped me connect the dots between many of these interests and questions of mine and much longer currents of history. I like to think that this beneficial effect was mutual and that I was able to connect many of their interests into very current questions about the place and role of artificial intelligence, and show how some of the questions that they are exploring in their research urgently bears on the contemporary moment.

What advice would you give to artists who are considering the JHI's Artist in Residence Fellowship?

My simplest advice is to make sure you go to all the lunches and mix freely, as that is where the community is forged and that is where there is maximum opportunity for serendipitous encounters that lead in unexpected directions. My one regret was that I ended up presenting my work quite late in the cycle, and I think the Artist in Residence would benefit greatly from sharing their actual work earlier. It is easier for an academic to share the salient aspects of their research in conversation over lunch, while it takes a proper presentation to share what really matters about one’s artwork.

What projects are you currently working on?

My lab, the BMO Lab for Creative Research in the Arts, Performance, Emerging Technologies and Artificial Intelligence (which was not yet a reality when I was in residence), has just produced a performance environment where a performer’s live speech is translated in real-time into a continuously transforming visual panorama. This project is part of our mission to take emerging AI systems and make them accessible to people with limited technical background, but lots of interesting perspectives to bring to bear on important questions about AI systems and our relationships with them. We presented this as an interactive experience for visitors to the Faculty of Arts and Science’s Defy Gravity Fundraising event in late April. Next up is a deeper inquiry into the relationship (and lack thereof) between our human bodies and AI systems.