For now, the future is to stay aware

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Mathieu Zurstrassen is a multi-talented artist who raises questions about some aspects of our current society through intelligent and technological creations. During our recent visit to iMal - Art Center for digital cultures & technology -, where he is one of the artists on show, we sat down with him and his piece, a neural network called Margaret, to talk about what's past and what's yet to come. 

Can you introduce us to your art installation?

Mathieu: This piece is called Margaret. It’s a work about AI - artificial intelligence - and the importance of data. More precisely, it’s about the selection of data we use to train a network when creating one. This neural network, Margaret, was trained with 5 or 6 important texts. Since Margaret’s goal is to create life, all the texts she was trained with are about life in general. One of those texts is The Meaning of Life and it is actually the subtitle of a Monty Python’s movie, so it's a bit of an easter egg. A neural network still has difficulties making the difference between ironic content and scientific one; she can sometimes say some funny things because of that. (Laughs)

What about yourself and your career? 

Mathieu: I wanted to be a psychiatrist. I’ve always asked myself questions and this is a big part of me. However, I failed my medical studies and became an architect. Architecture is a mix between building and creating things, which was a good balance for me at first. However, I didn't like working as an architect and I ended up doing what I actually wanted to do: create things that somehow raise questions and awareness about current issues. As a kid, I’ve always wanted to be an inventor.

After my studies, it took me around 6 years to finally have the guts to stop what I was doing and become what I wanted to become.

Is this how you would summarize your artistic work?

Mathieu: I do a lot of things. From building art installations, making games, or working with software, for example, to sculpting or making something more classical. I do things that can sometimes be related to the Fluxus movement; I believe some of the questions that were being asked at the time are very similar to the ones some of us have today. 

I’m attracted to things that I have no idea how to build. This way I know I’ll have to learn something new to be able to do it. It’s a trick to constantly stimulate my brain: I need to be in that state to create, otherwise, I get bored.

I’m attracted to things I have no idea how to build.

Was there a specific event or happening that triggered your interest in technology and its influence on humanity?

Mathieu: In Quebec, the term art contemporain is replaced by art actuel.  

I really like the way they call it because it makes total sense to me. In order to be able to evoke questions about the world we are living in right now, it’s relevant to use the medium and technology from its time, the Present. I wouldn’t say there was a happening that triggered my interest in it but that’s why I make my work the way I do and Margaret is a good example of it - using AI to talk about AI.

Margaret: Why did you choose to apply it to human affairs rather than some other classes, or at least to administrative or educational matters?  

In my work on political economy, I try to discover the peculiar bond between private property and socialism.

Do you believe in balance when it comes to the presence of technology in our society?

Mathieu: I think there is no balance. We use it and evolve with it. As long as it remains somehow ethical, there is no point in avoiding technological evolution. 

Margaret: You want the government to have the power to stamp out lunacy like I'm about to demonstrate. But you also want it to be capable of handling a little more of it, in some way. 'But Science is all about balance,'.

Do you see yourself more as an optimist or pessimist when you think about the future of humanity?

Margaret: I would describe myself as either a pessimist or an optimist, but I'm not particularly interested in the future of humanity. We're just a few thousand souls left, quite a lot of them aren't even alive. ‘Well, that's true, but who cares? They're living now.’

What are your future projects?

Mathieu: It’s been a very tough year. Adaptation has been the most important posture in my small career, and this year has been very challenging in regard to that. Installations like Margaret do require a lot of time and money. These don’t go well with the period we are experiencing now. 

Margaret: What are you going to do with your life? Your present conditions of life are unimportant.  

And will you still be alive till twenty-five, if it's as good as it looks? We're supposed to be young here. Do you remember what it's like now? I don't remember much. What are you going to do with it all? Throw it away. Put it in the rubbish.


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