【by Yi-Hua Wu, Dec. 2023】
[Details: Deep image reconstruction, sensors, sound, scent, incubator, flies, sanded wall, dust. Photo Credit: Ola Rindal & Tomas Rydin. Courtesy of the artist and Serpentine Galleries, Hauser & Wirth, London © / Kyoto University and ATR]
In late 2018, Pierre Huyghe organized an exhibition titled UUmwelt at the Serpentine Gallery in London. The exhibition, named after the German term for “environment,” featured five large screens displaying images—simulations of human mental images and brain activity. The imagination was prompted to envision how many images, sounds, and smells the human brain could process in an instant. Collaborating with the Kamitani Lab at Kyoto University, the artist engaged participants in mentally reconsidering specific images captured through fMRI scans related to the future fusion of animals and humans. The ensuing data were then fed into a deep neural network, which endeavored to reconstruct these mental images from a vast database. The resultant collage of images aligned with the test results, presenting a raw, unedited, and disorderly collection.
Our imagination endeavors to capture specific images, blending and re-blending them in the chaos of disorder. These images seem to stabilize at times, only to swell again: a child’s face with dog ears, a hybrid entity resembling a car and an insect. These images, reminiscent of sketches yet to find their final form, create an atmosphere akin to the works of Hieronymus Bosch, where fantasy intertwines with the biological. The resulting visual landscape is characterized by its raw and unfiltered nature, challenging traditional artistic norms and providing viewers with a unique and thought-provoking experience.
Beyond the screens, Huyghe introduced an additional element to the exhibition—an ensemble of ten thousand continuously buzzing flies. With a lifespan of two weeks, these flies reproduced during the exhibition, making their presence felt in various corners of the dimly lit gallery. The flies gathered prominently around the five large screens, creating a dynamic interplay with the artificial images displayed.
The artificial images on the screens were influenced by external factors such as weather, temperature, humidity, and lighting conditions, mirroring the breeding of flies, changes in scent, and programmed alterations in the lighting hues. Sensors hidden in the gallery captured audience reactions and transmitted information as parameters to the neural network algorithm of the computer, resulting in a complex and intricate process. At times, the images on the screens would coalesce, and the interruptions depended on the conditions of the gallery space, forming an endless feedback loop between the environment and the moving entities within.
Engaging with Complexity
Thousands of morphing images oozed from the screen walls, blending and humming, disrupting audience attention and creating a sensory experience that could evoke discomfort or trigger associations. The gallery walls, polished to reveal traces of the previous exhibition’s paint and abstract patterns, along with moss-like vegetation and dust left by visitors on the floor, further added to the sensory disturbances. The overall exhibition environment transcended the conventional comfort of an art space, creating an uncanny ecosystem experience that tightly interconnected humans, animals, and AI technology in unpredictable cycles of growth, death, or birth.
Huyghe ventures beyond traditional artistic boundaries, seamlessly intertwining art, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence. UUmwelt is not merely an installation or performance; it approaches a living organism or a complex system involving dynamic entities, both living and non-living. Despite being part of a developing wild reality, Uumwelt presented a hybrid ecological perception, integrating rational illusions generated through statistical optics, pixel calculations, and algorithmic intoxication with perceptions derived from other biological species.
Evidently, the artist’s interest lies not in creating fiction but in exploring new realities. In a conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist, the then Artistic Director of Serpentine Galleries, Huyghe explained his creative idea, stating that the things produced in the exhibition need not be solely managed or intended by the artist but can be a collective intelligence of biological or non-biological entities beyond the human realm. For Huyghe, the exhibition ritual is no longer an experience of inequality between species or man-machine. He aims to create an encounter environment where various forms of intelligent life, including biological entities, technological components, and tangible inanimate matter, possess the ability for mutual perception. This environment can autonomously perceive, learn, generate events, modify, evolve, or give rise to new possibilities of interdependence among elements.
This peculiar development of a strange new image ecosystem engages thought actively in its generative process, which does not necessarily adhere to human logic. The artist intentionally challenges conventional expectations, inviting viewers to contemplate a reality that transcends familiar human-centric frameworks.
Mixed Ecological Perception and AI’s Surreal Perspective
Pierre Huyghe dismisses the binary logics of man-machine or human-nature, ushering in UUmwelt, a dialogue between two distinct worlds—the natural and the artificial intelligence realms. Despite being human-centric, artificial intelligence provides a perspective that transcends the human gaze. And like any other sentient being, AI may have its own perception and imagination. However, artificial intelligence possesses its own environment, much like animals and humans. Images in the brain are once again mixed through artificial intelligence technology and the detection of reality without a sight or non-human eye. Here, they are the reconstructed mental images of the human mind but there is a lack of sensuous hallucination. Using Paul Virilio’s terminology, it is a form of representational paradox logic — an instrumental virtual image flow. UUmwelt prompts a reconsideration of surrealism—not as an artistic gesture pointing beyond reality but as the representation of a virtual reality in the making.
While UUmwelt evolves as a wild reality, it embodies a hybrid ecological perception. On one side, it engages rational illusions generated through statistical optics, pixel calculations, and algorithmic intoxication. On the other side, it encompasses a form of perception derived from other biological species.
These images may resemble surrealism, akin to Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, or Roberto Matta in their desert and evanescent forms, but informational patterns supersede the sublime creation of spiritual images in the human mind. As articulated by Pierre Huyghe, “I don’t want to exhibit something to someone, but rather the reverse: to exhibit someone to something.” This encapsulates a state where the subject is observed by objects and entities, disrupting our sense of reality.
The exhibition signaled a departure from the conventional art gallery experience and embraced an unconventional sensorial exploration, challenging viewers to understand how to coexist and interact with elements beyond the realms of human knowledge, meaning, language, and conceptual understanding. In essence, UUmwelt transcends the human gaze through the perceptual logistics of AI image technology, constructing a surreal and futuristic style while demonstrating a post-anthropocentric philosophical poetics.
However, in this context, it is essential to highlight that technology, while playing a significant role, does not fundamentally change the principles of art. This underscores the idea that technology serves as a valuable tool but cannot substitute for the artist’s intrinsic creativity and thinking.
Yi-Hua Wu, Assistant Professor, Department of Fine Arts, National Taiwan University of Arts, Taiwan
 The exhibition’s title, “UUmwelt,” refers to the concept of “Umwelt” from the theory of “environment” by the Estonian biologist Jakob von Uexküll. Developed in the early 20th century, this theory posits that each species has a specific and unique way of perceiving its environment: the visual perception of a mouse differs from that of a bird or a human, and so forth. Creating an environment (Umwelt) marks a significant step in the artificial intelligence life; it is at the core of numerous contemporary scientific endeavors to comprehend its latent capabilities.
Virilio, P. La machine de vision, Paris: Galilee, 1988.
Goffman, E. Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience, Northeastern University Press, 1986.