The world became one in the smallest, darkest room at Madinat Jumeirah last week — and it happened because of AI. For four days at Art Dubai, Canadian-Korean digital artist Krista Kim stood inside Heart Space, an immersive installation within a mirror-panelled room with four podiums and a giant LED screen. Supported by the Zurich-based bank Julius Baer, this is where visitors could co-create an artwork.

Kim instructed visitors to place their thumbs on tiny capsule-shaped sensors that could read their heartbeats. The hardware would assess their mood and assign a colour. Within seconds, their heartbeats would join a sea of waves gently lapping against each other on the screen. “What we do is extract the algorithm and create colour, wave form and speed that is co-relating to your unique algorithm,” she explained.

Heart Space
| Photo Credit:
Christopher Edralin

Heart Space is the latest invention born of Kim’s “techism” philosophy, which espouses an urgent need for infusing “humanism” in the discourse around technology through art. “We’ve collaborated with a biometric technology company that creates an AI algorithm for your heartbeat,” she said. “When I was listening to the CEO talk about creating these ‘signature keys’, I realised that this security mechanism can be used as a paint brush.”

And because it’s demonstrated like this, people can walk away thinking AI is not evil, she added. “They can realise that it’s always the intention behind AI that matters; that it is possible to engage it in a way that is responsible, ethical, humane. That is something we can teach through art. The more artists that engage with AI, the better for humanity. It’s crucial right now.”

From 3D to NFTs

Anyone who’s been to Dubai in the last decade could attest to the emirate’s cosmopolitan techtopian ambitions. Art has rapidly gained importance as a marker of its cultural identity, beginning with the formation of Art Dubai in 2007 and now a burgeoning scene with independent galleries, collectors and artists from around the world. The city has also become the unlikely playground for art and technology to meet in unexpected ways.

“It’s sort of an organic development,” said Alfredo Cramerotti, co-curator of Art Dubai Digital, a section dedicated to exploring digital art in all its forms, now in its third year. “The ecosystem of advanced technology has made art production more accessible. It has allowed the world of artistic production to expand because, up to 50 years ago, if you didn’t live in a major cultural centre, like New York, London or Paris, you could forget about being an artist.”

For him and co-curator Auronda Scalera, the new capitals of digital art might be Hong Kong, Miami, Zurich. “The whole GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] region is open to technology to produce new cultural forms,” he said. “It is really curious because the majority of these artists come from the Global South,” added Scalera, which tied in neatly with the overarching theme of this year’s edition of the art fair.

Curators Auronda Scalera and Alfredo Cramerotti

Curators Auronda Scalera and Alfredo Cramerotti
| Photo Credit:
Sean Drakes

Inside Art Dubai Digital, curated with the theme of ‘Expansion/Diffusion’ inspired by American astronomer Edward Hubble’s theory of expansion of the universe, Cramerotti and Scalera gathered artists, galleries, collectors, even “post-institutions” (that support and market art without a physical address) from Argentina to Panama and Seoul. All explore the ecosystem, from digital art creation and production to the marketplace.

At the entrance, we met London-based design studio Looty’s Nigerian co-founders, who were displaying the loot of their “digital heist” from when they went into the British Museum — 3D-scanned “stolen” African artefacts reproduced in the form of 3D hologram presentations. In a maze of drawing robots, VR headsets and motion-sensitive frames, sat Italian video art pioneer Fabrizio Plessi’s Digital Gold series — with screens as frames musing on the meltable, malleable value of gold.

Elsewhere, Moscow-based contemporary artist Sasha Frolova debuted her blend of performance, sculpture, fashion and music. She donned her inflatable latex costume, threw feathers in her hair, and danced around the Koshta Collective booth, even as digital photographs as NFTs framed all around her were available for sale. Art In Space’s booth was four small cave-like chambers, with shiny silver metal wrapped around a screen, on which played cyberpunk-esque animations — interpretations by four artists as part of the series Dystopia: Societies Futura: Utopia.

And just as for Art in Space, which has a permanent outpost in downtown Dubai, the possibilities and anxieties that digital art can communicate is a major theme for a lot of the new galleries and experiential spaces that have mushroomed across the city. For instance, Arte Museum, a newly-opened 360 immersive experience centre — a South Korea import inside Dubai Mall — has multiple rooms that simulate natural environments, such as gardens, beaches, jungles and more, in digital-only worlds.

Art In Space

Art In Space
| Photo Credit:

Over at the circular room of Krasota, the Moscow-origin high-concept restaurant that’s been at the Address Hotel Dubai for a year, an eight course menu meets eight imaginary futures — exploring an underwater megacity to the possibility of eternal life, through sharp AI-generated animation and real-time gaming. Entertaining for some, derivative for others, experiences like these perhaps indicate not just the future of digital art, but also the possibilities for a non-siloed, integrated cultural landscape.

Revolutionising art

If Kim’s goal is to reframe our relationship with AI, contemporary Indian artist Nalini Malani’s might be to amplify her feminist visions to a decibel level that can no longer go unheard. At Alserkal Avenue, the vibrant hub of contemporary arts in Dubai, Malani’s nine-channel video installation, Can You Hear Me?, took over the cavernous art space called The Concrete, while the 2023 video artwork Ballad of a Woman, was projected onto its facade. In these 88 animations made on her iPad, jarring, beautiful and disturbing, Malani responds to and reckons with the violent rape and death of an eight-year-old girl in 2018.

“The most fascinating thing about technology in art is its capacity to address issues that cannot be addressed in any other way,” said Pablo del Val, artistic director of Art Dubai. For him, the use of technology in art has been key in the development of thought and creation. “Think of photography, especially video. Our perception of time was revolutionised. You could manipulate time, and storytelling came into the picture. It’s the same thing with digital. Of course, now there is AI; we don’t know where we are going.”

But, medium and form no bar, all art and storytelling is about one thing in the end: being human. “It doesn’t matter if we do it with a software or a paint brush,” said del Val. “Artists have the capacity to produce with tools they never had before. But look around and you’ll see it. Technology cannot get over the hand that has made it.”

The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai, writing on culture, lifestyle and technology.

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