A metal bridge over pools of water in a metal foor

TIDAL: Troubled Waters by Stine Deja

Stine Deja, Troubled Waters (2023). Image courtesy Signal Film & Media.

Signal Film & Media continues its programme, TIDAL, with the second of three exhibitions over the year in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria. Stine Deja’s Troubled Waters, co-funded by Arts Council England and The Danish Art Fund, draws on the same themes as previous TIDAL shows. Her installation reflects on the human-water relationship and examines Barrow’s coastal environment and the wider climate crisis. The organisers, Signal Film & Media, bring ambitious projects to the town (which has this year been prioritised by Arts Council England for the next round of funding). With a steady and growing audience, the organisation is a stand-out in the area for impressive exhibitions by national and international artists alike.

One such artist is Deja, an international Danish Artist working between London and Copenhagen. This, her latest work, falls somewhere between an interactive sculpture and immersive space or installation. Spanning the size of the gallery, the floor is raised by metal grids to be walked over. In the middle of the installation is a large steel bridge, the only part of the work raised above the floor. The bridge draws the eye by cutting the room in two. The far side wall is created from dripping water falling from the ceiling. There is a subdued voice similar to the artificial voices used by Amazon and Google products that infrequently makes announcements over speakers hidden away in the ceiling. Cut out of the metal grid flooring are holes, some of which frame TV monitors with digital fish scurrying across the screens and some real water ponds with metal water lilies placed on top. It’s a menacing piece, both bare and intimidating to look at. Stripped of any decoration, only showing the bare metal bones of apparent industrial necessity. It’s a cold structure that seems drained of colour.

A digital rendering of a carp in a pond
Stine Deja, Troubled Waters (2023). Image courtesy Signal Film & Media.

This year ChatGPT (an advanced language model developed by OpenAI) has dominated large parts of cultural conversation. Whether it’s generating art, replacing American writers currently on strike, coding, creating Instagram profile pictures or gaming, AI (Artificial Intelligence) has been thrust on to the world stage. AI can perform tasks that typically require a human level of intelligence. Interfaces like ChatGPT use an AI language model to generate text-based responses from our human input (a key difference in computer programs and AI is that AI use ‘deep learning architectue’ enabling them to analyse and learn patterns from vast amounts of data). As with many new technologies, the art world has been quick to capitalise on public intrigue, NFTs being last year’s darling. While the initial interest in this new technology is exciting for audiences, a question arises regarding whether artists utilising this technology can break free from its material implications, or if the discussion solely revolves around the ethical concerns associated with the technology, rendering them unable to transcend its influence.

ChatGPT requires enormous amounts of water to run. For a user posing twenty-five to fifty questions, the process requires half a litre of water to cool the servers used to run it. Deja is keen to draw the parallel between humans and AI, both needing to ‘drink’ to function. Despite its mechanical ‘body’, AI still relies on water. There is a biological need for technology, and any AI species is drawing on the same finite resources as biological life. We are water, we are made of it and need it to live, and so does AI. Troubled Waters doesn’t use AI technology in its creation, instead presenting us with Deja’s fictional vision. While other artists may use AI to create artwork, Deja presents her idea of what AI creativity might look like. There is still a playfulness underneath the menacing exterior of this installation, reiterating themes from the artist’s previous work like Thermal Womb (2020) in which Deja creates a series of futuristic pods similar to cryogenic chambers seen in science fiction (the human body fused with technology is often a key element of her work). Thematic threads such as rebirth, reimagining and new beginnings run through her work, but here in Troubled Waters she takes a different visual approach, deciding on an industrial makeover of the natural world.

A metal lots flower floats on a pool of water
Stine Deja, Troubled Waters (2023). Image courtesy Signal Film & Media.

The presence of Troubled Waters’ inspiration, Monet’s ‘Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies’ (1899), looms over the installation – the numerous visual references to Monet’s painting are key to understanding it. Most people will recognise Monet’s famous work even if they don’t know the artist; the piece has been copied millions of times as prints and is one of the most well-known works of art the world over. As Deja points out, even this masterpiece is an artificial version of true nature, and in her work this interpretation of nature has been updated for ‘the age of AI’. Whereas the metallisation of such a traditionally beautiful scene feels unnatural, it is simply an updated version of Monet’s scene that we are invited to walk through and experience, in a way not possible with traditional paintings. Deja is ambiguously positioned between embracing and mourning a future where this technology is so readily available – possibly she is warning us about it.

Troubled Waters asks us to touch what we are unable to grasp; it tries to reconcile the un-physicality with the real environment effects and emotional affect of artificial intelligence. Does an AI program have the same concept of beauty, or is this form meaningless to machines? In the same vein, Troubled Waters feels like it’s been designed with an eerily practical, cold and alien aesthetic, where the art of the distant future isn’t made but designed for optimal use of resources. Deja also reminds us of the cost to explore such questions. How do we use our limited resources, and how will we use them in the future? Deja tries to show us the possible evolution of beauty but it feels like the industrial version she provides is a temporary makeover, which may mimic the limits of current AI programs we use but is at the expense of a more challenging installation. The mix of unease and humour that Deja’s other works provide so readily might not be as pronounced in Troubled Waters, but are still very much in play.

TIDAL: Stine Deja, Cooke’s Studios, 102 Abbey Road, Barrow, 17 June –30 July 2023.

James McColl is an artist & writer based in the North West.

This review is supported by Signal Film & Media.

Published 10.07.2023 by Jazmine Linklater in Reviews

1,090 words