Theater Rotterdam investigates in a performance: does artificial intelligence create art?

Sunday evening in Theater Rotterdam begins and ends with the new music genre amapiano. The foyer is busy. Rhythmic African music with a heavy bass slips from the fingers of DJ Cijntje, a local celebrity. The public awaits the ninth edition of TR Citizens, a program where a random Rotterdammer’s life story is depicted by artists. This time, program creators Sheree Lenting, Hanina Ajarai and Chelsea Pachito have ‘picked Rotterdammer Çagri (36) from the Nieuwe Binnenweg’.

Çagri is a Turkish-Dutch psychiatrist from Schiedam. A tall guy with a soft look. As a hobby, he and friends have created an artificial intelligence program called Foga. This processes and generates the data that Çagri and his friends enter into artworks. At least that is the question, and also the question that is central today. Can artificial intelligence (AI) create art?

The result of that question and the psychiatrist Çagri’s life story is an artful mosaic of perspectives on the same theme. The performance in the Kleine Zaal starts with an essayistic monologue by Rotterdam resident Izzy Wu Ramos with video images of Rotterdam. The task she had been given by TR: imagine the future of the city with the impact of artificial intelligence in mind. The result is not necessarily an answer to that question – her essay is mainly about how certain communities are being pushed out of town by ‘big money’ and about Izzy’s fearful expectation that there probably won’t be room for them in the future.

also read this piece about how children in Rotterdam learn about their identity through history

absurd pictures

After Izzy’s monologue, we see images of Foga projected on the screen and Cagri and Izzy talking before we see an app (StarryAI) that creates artwork based on keywords. Basically the same dynamics as Foga. It produces funny moments, such as an artwork with the keywords ‘Amsterdam’ and ‘garbage’. After ‘making’ a few absurd pictures, we listen to a reading by the poet Babeth Fonchie Fotchind. She reads three poems from her new collection Fold which was published last summer by the publisher De Geus. The most beautiful poem is about the orderliness of the world, about the dynamism of ‘everything being delivered within a day at the touch of a button’. Babeth wants a loving mother – in the house on Friday, please.

Then we are called to go into the foyer. A panel discussion will take place there between Çagri, Izzy and a new guest – Cynthia Lee, professor of computer science at TU Delft and classical pianist. What is AI? How often do we use AI? Is AI objective? Can an AI program pass for an artist? What is art anyway? These are infinitely interesting questions, which are unfortunately asked in a limited, short program: Before we know it, we are sent back to space. The last part of TR Citizens is a dance performance by young dancers who move to music by DJ Cijntje, without the dancers knowing beforehand what music it is. The choreography is by Dalton Jansen, winner of the latest edition of the Jonge Zwaan, one of the most prestigious (youth) dance awards in our country. The evening ends with a drink and a snack.

All in all, it’s an evening where talented artists show off their work. The room is only half full, probably a remnant from the corona crisis that has affected the entire sector. The evening sometimes feels a little random – it’s hard to recognize Cagri’s life story in the various art forms. In fact, at the end of the evening, you don’t really know who Çagri really is. It serves as a coat rack for a themed evening about technology and artificial intelligence.

Inclusion

Something else that stands out: At Theater Rotterdam, they take a big leap in terms of diversity, inclusion and polyphony. Since the hiring of artistic director Alida Dors, TR prefers not to talk about diversity anymore. According to Dors, that conversation has been too often – action must be taken now. As Dors says in his recently performed Staat van het Theater: ‘I embrace polyphony without denying its complexity. Some of us, in positions where they are rarely questioned, mistake the deep discomfort associated with polyphony for insecurity […]but we will have to get used to that discomfort at the table.”

TR Citizens fits into this development. The artists’ background is diverse, no emphasis on that. Without being complacent about it. No, the fact that TR Citizens is made of people of different ethnic backgrounds is a given, not an achievement. And the fact that this program celebrates Rotterdam and its multiculturalism is just that: a blessing for the city. Theater is becoming more and more accessible, and a little more for everyone.

Next editions on 22 December, 16 March and 14 May.

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