Berggruen Future of Democracy Scholar Teaching Course and Curating Exhibition at Occidental College on Art and Algorithmic Bias

Exhibition at Oxy Arts Open Now Through November 19, 2021

Christopher Eldred

Around the Berggruen Institute, Mashinka Firunts Hakopian is known as the Associate Director of Research for the Future of Democracy program. But this fall, she’ll also be known as the 2021 Mellon Professor of the Practice in the Department of Art and Art History at Occidental College, where she’ll be teaching a fascinating new course on Art, AI, & The Aesthetics of Algorithmic Justice. This appointment coincides with an exhibition at Oxy Arts called Encoding Futures: Critical Imaginaries of AI, co-curated by Firunts Hakopian and Oxy Arts Director Meldia Yesayan.

Before joining the Future of Democracy program, Firunts Hakopian was a Senior Researcher in the Transformations of the Human program at the Berggruen Institute, involved in its effort to promote artists and artworks that reflect and inspire imaginative thinking about technology and its relationship with humanity.

At Occidental, her course focuses on revealing the harm caused by pervasive algorithmic injustice, immersing students in artworks that envision how algorithms might function in a better future and asking them to contribute such an imaginative vision of their own.

“Visions of technological development are also always visions about the future in which we want to live,” says Firunts Hakopian, describing the importance of artistic imagination for developing just and effective rules, institutions, and systems in a rapidly transforming world. “The actions that proceed from those visions, like resource allocation and R&D trajectories, generate futures linked to sociotechnical imaginaries.”

From the writings of Cathy O’Neill and Ruha Benjamin, to artworks by Martine Syms, Stephanie Dinkins, and Astria Suparak, course materials will not only provide students with a strong foundation of understanding of algorithmic injustice, but also exemplify art as a necessary input in the political and policymaking process.

The curriculum responds to an urgent need to confront algorithmic injustice. While bias is pervasive in the analogue world, as well, algorithms centralize and weaponize bias with heretofore unseen power and scale. In just one flawed algorithm for hiring, Firunts Hakopian points out, millions of people could be subjected to one set of biases, institutionalizing flawed standards and judgments far beyond anything we’ve seen before.

But this course responds to a different urgent need, as well, and one that the Berggruen Institute is also intent on meeting in its work: the need to adopt a more imaginative, more artistic mindset in planning for a future in which algorithms play a transformative role.

“Art and aesthetic practice are spaces where we blueprint possible futures and map alternative possibilities,” says Firunts Hakopian. “This isn’t a new idea, but one that’s long been in practice across various cultural contexts. Within Indigenous knowledge systems, for example, artists are understood as crucial to the social and political field, who bring ways of knowing that are as legitimate as the ways of knowing associated with other forms of inquiry, advocacy, policymaking, legislation, and so on…”

Algorithmic bias represents a particularly difficult problem to solve, and it’s only one of the enormous transformations facing today’s world that will require more imaginative, divergent thinking from all leaders and stakeholders. Studying art, and learning to make art, about these transformations can inspire the thinking and discussion we need. Firunts Hakopian hopes that this course will equip students with tools and experience to adopt an artistic mindset in imagining the future when serving as leaders and change-makers, no matter their field.

The Institute is committed to inspiring ideas that will shape humanity amid these great transformations. From our programmatic work and Fellowships to salons, roundtables, and other gatherings with our network, we strive to push people towards new ways of thinking about the future. We’re thrilled that Mashinka Firunts Hakopian is carrying out this essential work with our academic neighbor Occidental College, this fall, and look forward to what her work there will inspire.

composed by Arswain
machine learning consultation by Anna Tskhovrebov
commissioned by the Berggruen Institute
premiered at the Bradbury Building
downtown Los Angeles
april 22, 2022

Human perception of what sounds “beautiful” is necessarily biased and exclusive. If we are to truly expand our hearing apparatus, and thus our notion of beauty, we must not only shed preconceived sonic associations but also invite creative participation from beings non-human and non-living. We must also begin to cede creative control away from ourselves and toward such beings by encouraging them to exercise their own standards of beauty and collaborate with each other.

Movement I: Alarm Call
‘Alarm Call’ is a long-form composition and sound collage that juxtaposes, combines, and manipulates alarm calls from various human, non-human, and non-living beings. Evolutionary biologists understand the alarm call to be an altruistic behavior between species, who, by warning others of danger, place themselves by instinct in a broader system of belonging. The piece poses the question: how might we hear better to broaden and enhance our sense of belonging in the universe? Might we behave more altruistically if we better heed the calls of – and call out to – non-human beings?

Using granular synthesis, biofeedback, and algorithmic modulation, I fold the human alarm call – the siren – into non-human alarm calls, generating novel “inter-being” sonic collaborations with increasing sophistication and complexity. 

Movement II: A.I.-Truism
A synthesizer piece co-written with an AI in the style of Vangelis’s Blade Runner score, to pay homage to the space of the Bradbury Building.

Movement III: Alarmism
A machine learning model “learns” A.I.Truism and recreates Alarm Call, generating an original fusion of the two.

Movement IV: A.I. Call
A machine learning model “learns” Alarm Call and recreates A.I.Truism, generating an original fusion of the two.