Sougwen Chung: Human and machine collaboration

By Vinciane Jones

Sougwen Chung 鍾愫君 is an internationally acclaimed Chinese-Canadian artist and (re)searcher. Her practice spans performance, installation, and drawing. Chung explores the dynamics of humans and systems and has been recognized as a pioneer of human-machine collaboration. She has held several Artist-in-Residence positions including at Google, Bell Labs and Eyebeam. Her works have been exhibited internationally at the National Art Center in Tokyo, Pearl Art Museum in Shanghai, MIT Media Lab and The New Museum, among many others. 

Sougwen Chung’s inaugural NFT was minted on June 7 in exclusive partnership with Verisart and SuperRare as part of 8×8: 8 genesis NFTs by 8 major artists working with AI, code and digital technologies. Bidding closes around 12pm EDT June 10. 

Sougwen Chung  鍾愫君, Ligatures (Node 1), NFT

Human and Machine Collaboration

Sougwen Chung’s work bridges the gap between art and science, navigating the two spheres in a poetic and insightful way. Chung raises questions about what is human and what is the machine, encouraging her viewers to consider this relationship in the present as well as how it will evolve in the future.

Sougwen Chung sees technology as a collaborator rather than a tool. For the artist, technology today is not fixed, instead, it is editable, fluid and responsive. Technology’s ability to respond forms an important basis for Chung’s collaborative work with AI and robotics.

Sougwen Chung 鍾愫君, Drawing Operations, 2018, courtesy of the artist

In 2015, during her time as a research affiliate at the MIT Media Lab, Chung developed a robot called ‘Drawing Operations Unit: Generation 1’, nicknamed D.O.U.G. This first robot was programmed to follow the artist’s drawing and mimic her lines. 

D.O.U.G_1 led to an ongoing series, Drawing Operations. Chung stages live performances where she invites an audience to watch her paint and draw collaboratively with her robot collaborators. Unlike many other AI artists, whose work focuses on the digital side, Chung is interested in exploring how these digital systems influence our body’s actions and reactions in the physical space. 

Sougwen Chung 鍾愫君, FRAN, 2020, courtesy of the artist 

Each performance is unique and dependent on custom machines which are at times unpredictable and prone to glitches. The artist embraces these mistakes and imperfections, explaining in her 2019 Ted Talk, that not only do mistakes make the work more interesting but that “part of the beauty of human and machine systems is their shared inherent fallibility”.

 Sougwen Chung 鍾愫君, Drawing Operations, 2019, courtesy of the artist

There are now about two dozen D.O.U.Gs, each trained by Chung using AI systems and a variety of input data. D.O.U.G_2 was trained on 20 years of Chung’s digital and analog drawings. The next generation, D.O.U.G_3, went beyond the individual relationship between Chung and the robot to explore the human and machine collaboration at a collective scale. The artist and her team developed 20 custom robots programmed to draw data from camera feeds in New York City and analyze the collective density, direction, dwell and velocity states of urban movement.  

Sougwen Chung, Exquisite Corpus, 2020, courtesy of the artist

The relationship between machine and human raises interesting questions about creativity and authorship in our increasingly digital world. The relationship between the AI robots and Chung works both ways, they respond to the artist but she is also responding and being inspired by the robots as they work together on the same canvas. Moving beyond the individual relationship of human-to-robot, DOUG_3 also demonstrated that technology often depends on collective authorship rather than individual authorship, as the data is drawn from a collective source which plays a significant role in the final work.

To further her exploration of human and non-human collaboration, Sougwen Chung launched Scilicet studio in 2019. In particular, the studio is interested in the feedback loop between individual, artificial and ecological systems.

Sougwen Chung, Tilt Brush Artist in Residence 2019, courtesy of the artist 

Augmented Reality 

Beyond robotics and AI, Chung has also worked creatively with other digital media, including Augmented Reality. One of Chung’s previous AR works, Into the Light, was created for the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. 

Sougwen Chung, Into the Light, 2019, courtesy of the artist

Into the Light was a six-part augmented reality experience, blending the virtual world and physical space of the building. The works were accompanied by a recording of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 2 in D Minor by the renowned cellist Yoyo Ma.

Sougwen Chung, Into the Light, 2019, courtesy of the artist

For the work, Chung drew on another number of sources of inspiration, natural, mathematical and musical. The 3-dimensional drawings were inspired by the many interpretations of light; as natural phenomena, bodily meridians and cosmic microwave background, a remnant of the earliest light of the universe. These digital drawings aligned the building architecture with the Fibonacci sequence, one of the inspirations for Bach’s composition. 

Sougwen Chung, Into the Light, 2019, courtesy of the artist

Ligatures (Node 1)

Chung’s inaugural NFT, Ligatures (Node 1), continues the artist’s exploration of AR technology. The work explores the question “How can objects of speculative value be reimagined as support for mutual aid?” 

The artist explains “Ligatures (Node 1) is a new augmented reality series that connects lines of support — between artist, collector, and collectives dedicated to mutual aid. Node 1 expresses the concept of a multi-nodal decentralized network as an interlocking kinetic sculptural form that changes over time — like a living organism.”

Sougwen Chung’s NFT is certified with a Fair Trade Art Certificate from Verisart, an award-winning blockchain certification platform. Fair Trade Art is an initiative by Verisart designed to bring together artists and social impact organizations to do good. The certificate signals that funds from the sale of the artwork are benefiting a charitable cause. In this case, the artist will be donating 100% of her proceeds to EV loves NYC, an East Village grassroots organization that provides emergency food services to those hardest hit by COVID. 

Sougwen Chung, Ligatures (Node 1), Fair Trade Art Certificate of Authenticity by Verisart, courtesy of Verisart.

For collectors, Verisart’s patent-pending Certificates of Authenticity (COA) form an integral part of collecting NFTs. They provide confidence in the identity of the artist and the verified history of the artwork. Designed to empower artists to tell the story of their work, the digital certificates include additional images, videos and documents. The owner of the NFT will gain exclusive access to the AR version of the work through the Verisart certificate. As a digital piece, Node 1 will exist in 3 locations at once — the collector’s home, the artist’s studio, and the site of mutual aid.

Sougwen Chung © Laura Wilson, courtesy of the artist

Bidding for Sougwen Chung’s inaugural NFT, Ligatures (Node 1), closes at 12pm EDT on June 10.

Join Sougwen Chung on ART TALKS WITH VERISART to hear her discuss life, art and tech with Robert Norton, CEO and co-founder of Verisart. Tuesday, June 8 at 3pm EDT/8pm BST on Clubhouse.

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Verisart is a pioneering blockchain certification platform for artworks and collectibles. Verisart treasures creativity by empowering artists to tell the story of their work. Patent-pending Certificates of Authenticity enable trusted transactions by giving collectors confidence in the identity of the artist and the verified history of the artwork.

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