Interview with Guli Silberstein

Interview with Guli Silberstein

Guli Silberstein’s practice combines exploratory video processing techniques with questions about the human condition in the age of the algorithm. His video artworks evoke painting and collage aesthetics, often transforming recorded and found footage through digital processes and intuitively working with glitch.

This interview is released alongside Somewhere We Live in Little Loops - Special Edition (pictured), a new artwork on Sedition. Through the technique of next frame prediction, the work explores the integration of AI into human social and cultural structures and the way AI could shape the world of the future, as well as shedding light on how human memories and thoughts form and are stored and relate to sensory inputs.

Could you tell us about some of your recent projects? 

Lately I made the The Devil Had Other Plans series, which is an appropriation of the classic Zombie film from 1968 Night of the Living Dead. It’s a reaction to the shock, paranoia and surrealism of the pandemic crisis by way of processing this old horror film using AI colourisation and digital work to achieve a result which is a kind of a colourful crazy video. It’s composed from three Acts: Shock, Turmoil and Hell… This project sparked my interest in Artificial Intelligence technology which I’m really excited about. It led to the new work Somewhere We Live in Little Loops, where I worked with video prediction technology to create a string of processed shots of nature and humans. The computing system animated video clips I fed it with, and then edited it all together to create a sort of audio-visual poem.

Still from the The Devil Had Other Plans project by Guli Silberstein

Could you tell us about the role AI plays in your practice, and how you see your relationship with AI (is AI a tool or a collaborator or something else)?

I’ve always processed digitally the video images, using decoding, algorithms and software, breaking them up to reveal meanings and create new forms. AI video processing really blew my mind, because of its newness, and the nature of it. It’s quite a technological leap. And the particular algorithm I use is video prediction, where the technology actually guesses the next frame of a video by the previous one, based on its initial scanning of the video clip. The result is very interesting, creating visuals that basically have not been seen before. It's also raising ethical issues regarding the intervention of neural networks in human lives, what does prediction mean when using AI, and what would be the future uses of it. I also find it fascinating to deal with AI's powerful ‘brain’, very much attracted to see what is inside this ‘black box’, and also learn from it about our human brains, perception of time, motion, the mysteries of cognition.

What has your work taught you about the perception of machines? Do you think algorithms can think and create? 

Machines’ visual perception is similar in a way to how our brain functions, but their analysis of the light coming from images is very different from us. It was interesting to disrupt their process in the middle and create these images. It just shows how those machines can definitely create stuff. Here they actually animated the videos, but the human intervention and selection of what they produce is what made the art after all.

Still from Somewhere We Live in Little Loops by Guli Silberstein

Do you have any insights, based on your practice, into how computers see and understand humans?

Working with Artificial Intelligence that independently continues videos after analysing their first few seconds, I realised it totally doesn't care what is in the frame. For example when we see a young girl in a field we care about who she is, she’s a subject. But for the machine everything is the same, it's all just pixels and patterns, it crashes the girl and merges her with the field and sky with no hesitation. So that made me think how machines really have no ethics and that's worrying when you think how we give it quite a lot of control in automatic driving, access to our finances and of course the access to our data online. And often these neural networks are left alone to deal with all this data. So what is built into those AI systems is important, and they are built by humans, not from thin air. So the programmers and developers have quite a lot of responsibility. The result in this video work is just wonderful in terms of Aesthetics but also worrying when you think about the social-political implications of the way this technology is developed. 

Your works often reveal the presence of Artificial Intelligence through glitch or ‘malfunction’. Why did you choose to foreground the glitch in your work? Do you think the glitch plays an important cultural and social role?

Yes, ‘glitch’ plays an important cultural and social role. It’s often seen as disruption but I actually see the beauty of it. It's a way to reveal the inner truths that are in the images. Hito Steyerl talked about it, defining it as the ‘poor image’. I think this is a good way to expose deeper patterns in the world around us and in our cognition and visual perception of the world, exposing the fragility of our reality and our perception of it. I have a friend who actually uses the term ‘compression’ for what people sometimes regard as ‘glitch’ and I think in a way that it is more accurate because as I see it when we work with compression we go deep into the code and remove stuff and manipulate the video compression code and create new aesthetics this way. 

Could you tell us about your methodology - about how your video works tend to evolve?

A good question. I would say that the works are a projection from my brain. They come out from my subconscious I guess. I absorb issues that trouble me, and they come out after a while in visual forms and stories. Interesting connections are made between different elements and it’s just burning in me to actually try to produce them and make them present. For me cinema is about trying to make moving images that expose something in the way of poetry. I experiment a lot with moving images, combining visuals and audio and processing them, and sometimes something wonderful comes about that I haven't seen before. It hits a nerve and kind of stands out and it brings up interesting thoughts, so I react to it, work on it more, quite intensely and obsessively, losing myself in it, trying to work directly from the subconscious I guess. I found out many times after finishing the work that new meanings come up that were there but I haven’t noticed them. It's almost like discovering truth or discovering emotions and syndromes and traumas or memories that are buried deep inside. But it gives relief. The work is also a way to react to the world. There's a lot of information and experiences going around and I just can't NOT react to it, I have to react. That's the reason I actually make video artwork, reacting, trying to connect to s bigger picture.

Still from Field of Infinity (Image of Image) by Guli Silberstein - available on Sedition

How do you choose which footage to include in your work? 

I use my phone a lot now because it’s shooting HD & 4K(UHD) and slow motion and other tricks, in great video quality. I love that it’s always available, so when I see something to film I just pull out the phone and film it. I then incorporate it in my work. For example in a new work which is both about and made from lockdown walks in canals and green areas around my home. I also include my family often. And I consider the Internet screen as my environment too, so I absorb footage from there as well. I used to work a lot with found footage, news images of war etc. but lately I like incorporating public domain footage from all around the world and there's really amazing stuff that is available for free. It's interesting to see how these people, strangers that I don't know, upload great stuff they filmed. It's kind of like creating a collage of the world from that I feel, of our nature, animals, cities, human life. So a cycle of operation is created, researching and collecting, imagining, putting together and going back in cycles until the final result.

Still from Matter and Light by Guli Silberstein- available on Sedition

Which artists / designers / engineers inform your practice - who or what inspires you?

That's always a tricky question. I have colleagues and friends, very good filmmakers and artists that I'm inspired by. But going back to some influences in the beginning of my work around 1999-2000 in New York City, first one is seeing Stan Brakhage’s film Dog Star Man at the Museum of Modern Art, a work which is like an hour-long silent incredible film about a man and his struggle with nature, all done by composing shots on top of each other with all kinds of different film manipulations. Also Meshes of the Afternoon by Maya Deren, where she created with her partner Alexander Hammid this kind of associative narrative “David Lynchian'' kind of a film, using images as symbols. Another artist is Nam June Paik which for me is the godfather video artist who made a lot of pioneering work. For example the work that he made when he put a magnet over a TV monitor showing the American president Nixon giving a speech. The magnet was distorting the image and something inherent in the character was revealed. Last influence is Dara Birnbaum’s work Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman. Using footage from Wonder Woman the TV show. she manipulated it and made it a feminist saying and bringing up a lot ideas about television ans mass media.

Many of your works make sociopolicial comments as well as examining human and machinic perception. Does this commentary evolve during the making process, or do you know what you would like to communicate in the planning stage?

Well I have lived in London since 2010 but I was born in Israel in the Middle East, experiencing there wars, conflicts, and witnessing brutal injustices. I was also living in Manhattan New York when the attack on the World Trade Center in September 2001 took place. There are traumas, memories, criticism, that found their way into my works. I’m also influenced now by the pandemic, and the environmental crisis. We are a world in crisis and I feel it's important to reflect that. I mean that art can reflect and highlight problematic issues and bring them up to surface, creating awareness. That can lead to discussion and give it form so we can think about it and debate it and hopefully improve. I see a video work as a surface creating a place for discussion, a place for thought, and different people can have different emotions and different reflections coming out of experiencing this moving texture.

How has your practice adapted following the COVID-19 pandemic? How do you think the pandemic will change the art world, and how do you think the artists are adapting successfully to the pressures of the crisis?

Yes I feel my practice did adapt, it made the work more urgent in a way. It's such a huge crisis on a global scale. As I mentioned, I’m kind of used unfortunately to being in crisis situations I experienced in other places... so weirdly I am inspired by crisis situations. For me it brings out images and pushes me forward to do work. As in the processed Zombie series, the first work I made in a kind of a gut response when the pandemic broke out. I think that art is definitely a way to deal with these situations. The pandemic yes is definitely changing the art world I think. There's a lot of activity online. I see how my own work is consumed more online now. There isn’t much activity of showing art in public physical spaces but people still have the urge for it. Like they say: without art what do we really live for? It’s the best expression of human life that remains after us and even after cultures & civilisations collapse. But there is a lot of struggle for artists in these special challenging times. A lot of jobs are gone. Also a lot of museums and galleries are closed. Still, at least there is a lot of making and distribution online, and we are discovering the benefits of the online world which is a positive outcome.

Could you tell us what you’re working on next?

It’s an ever evolving process, but basically my passion is to push the texture of video to places that I've never been before and really penetrate the pixels and the particles of the images, and compose layers of those too to create a new work which is meaningful for me. I really don't know what is going to happen following the pandemic and the winter that we are facing. But whatever it is, it's going to find itself inside the next works for sure... I’m working now on projects that continue the AI work, combined with other techniques I’ve been developing. I made a series of three works about to come out, and as I’m really interested in the relationship between humans and machines, actually working on another video work dealing directly with that, we'll see what comes out, time will tell.

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Somewhere We Live in Little Loops premiered from 9 September to 1 October in the ARS Electronica online gallery, Linz Austria. Somewhere We Live in Little Loops - Special Edition is available on Sedition from 2 December.

Works from Guli Silberstein's The Devil Had Other Plans project will be shown as part of the following festival competitions in December:

- Beijing International Short Film Festival, China, December 4 - Act I

- Festival Tous Courts of Aix-en-Provence, France, December 1-5 - Act I

- Alternative Film/Video, Belgrade, Serbia, December 9-13 - Act II

Matter & Light is featured as part of Proceso de Error - Festival Internacional de Video Experimental in Valparaíso, Chile from 1- 13 December.

The Devil Had Other Plans (Act I) from Guli Silberstein on Vimeo.

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