Interview by Dean Sanders @dean__sanders

You know how it usually goes, right? We humans need time to wrap our heads around changes and find our place in society. 

Normally, society needs time to adapt to changes. Nxt is here to show you that time doesn’t wait for anyone, they push boundaries to make sure you are at the forefront of the action. Nxt has a mission, it’s all about stirring up our critical and curious minds. They’re here to facilitate the exploration of emerging ideas and practices, encouraging us to dive deep into the unknown. With the launch of their new seasonally rotating exhibition; Nxt Realtime  gathers artists, curators scholars, and the public to explore the big questions that keep us awake at night, What’s Nxt? 

“Q is for Climate (?)” Libby Heaney

I think it is safe to say that it is unique that you have bundled the powers of academic and art curators to take the concept of real-time to a whole new level. I am wondering academics are often very deep into their subjects, how do you keep the visitors in mind, so that they can grasp the works? 

(Charlotte) What was foremost in my mind was the strong focus on art. After all, this is an art show, and it’s crucial for viewers to truly grasp that they are experiencing art. We aimed to carefully select artists and artworks, engaging in conversations with them, which we all agreed had both experiential value and the ability to convey ideas through visual impact alone. We also made sure to provide optional contact screens with information, allowing the audience to seamlessly transition between immersing themselves in the artwork and choosing to delve deeper and learn about it. Maintaining this balance between immersion and knowledge was of utmost importance to both of us. 

(Jesse) Of course, the artworks we’re dealing with touch upon significant scientific and research-based topics. However, let’s take a step back and rewind for a moment. When we initially conceptualized the idea of Realtime, Nxt founders Merel and Natasha recognized the sudden surge of buzzwords like Web3, NFTs, and the metaverse that had captured public attention. They wanted to establish a space where Nxt Museum could make sense of these ideas and provide some clarity.I had observed that NFTs had an intriguing impact on new media art. More people were paying attention to it, but there seemed to be less interest in the underlying concepts, motivations, and driving forces behind the work. It extended the aspects of Instagram culture, which place a strong emphasis on the visual aspect of these artworks.

With Realtime, we intended to create a space where you could still have an incredible visual experience, while also providing avenues for deeper learning. We hoped to inspire visitors to continue their exploration beyond the museum walls. That’s where the idea for the context screens originated—to situate these works and allow artists to present the animating forces, influences, and research behind them. Our role was to present this information in an accessible manner, rather than being overly esoteric. We wanted to leave the esoteric pursuits for those visitors who wished to delve deeper on their own after leaving the museum.

Lilypads” – Mediating Exponential Systems

The first iteration of Realtime, titled ‘Lilypads: Mediating Exponential Systems,’ explores the multifaceted nature of lilypads as a symbol for navigating diverse perspectives on our world. It invites visitors to contemplate the connections between ecologies, technologies, cultures, and economics. How do the artworks in this exhibition capture and express these complex relationships? 

(Jesse) This single question alone has the potential to consume our entire conversation. So, in a nutshell, the origin of the term “lily pads” for our show is the French nursery rhyme mentioned in the 1972 report called “Limits to Growth.” This report outlined the finite boundaries of our planet during a time of heavy industrialization. When we consider a system of lily pads in a freshwater ecosystem like a pond, it can be beneficial when it coexists harmoniously with other elements in that ecology. However, if it grows too rapidly or dominates the pond, it can suffocate other forms of life in that environment. This image serves as an animating idea because in English, we have the metaphor of “jumping to a lily pad,” as in a frog seeking refuge from a predator. We perceive the lily pad as a safe haven. Yet, we encounter tension when examining the growth of exponential systems. On one hand, we associate it with a sense of salvation, while on the other hand, it may harm  the system if it’s not held in balance.

In the 2010s, the concept of “exponential technology” gained prominence, becoming a buzzword tied to Industry 4.0 and corporate perspectives on technological progress. These perspectives heavily emphasize exponential growth, considering a company successful only if it follows an exponential growth curve. However, those principles operate within the constraints of our finite planet, which has limited resources. Our attention itself is a finite resource, with only a set amount of time and capacity for focus in a given day.

Thus, the central question we grapple with, symbolized by the lily pad, is whether these exponential systems will be our downfall or if they hold the potential for us to find solutions and new paths to understand ourselves and navigate the world. For ‘Lilypads,’ we sought out artists whose work instigates these types of questions who embody systems thinking. 

(Charlotte) One interesting aspect of “Limits to Growth,” a book that has influenced my thinking for the past decade, is its emphasis on not viewing environmental concerns as distinct from economic progress.. The researchers aimed to demonstrate that economics had become disconnected from the planet, and they employed advanced computer modeling to analyze the potential consequences of unchecked economic growth. Their study presented four possible scenarios, with the best outcome highlighting the need for environmental management to prevent economic, social, and ecological impacts. What struck me about this approach was the use of technology not as a problem but as a tool for understanding our situation. This perspective served as an anchor for developing our show, avoiding simplistic views of technology as solely destructive or redemptive. Instead, we sought to carefully examine technology’s role and leverage artists’ unique position to comprehend and challenge the systems they engage with. Artists, deeply embedded in their practice, often push boundaries, uncover conflicts, and reveal possibilities. They offer a valuable lens to evaluate how these technologies align with our collective aspirations, rather than accepting them as predefined consumer goods. In this regard, we can delve into why these three artists, who are experts in their respective technologies, contribute significantly to this exploration. For instance ‘Libby Heany’ a quantum physicist turned artist, chose art as a means to bridge the gap between the concepts and operations of quantum physics, believing it would provide a better understanding for others. This is just one example among many.

The exhibition has an interactive element where the visitors can answer questions about their relationship with technology in their personal life. Why is this interactive element so important to this exhibition? 

(Charlotte) This held great significance for me because it aligns with the ethos of Realtime at Nxt Museum, which is centered around fostering an ongoing conversation. As a scholar curator, it’s easy to fall into the trap of having the ideas, showcasing them to the world, publishing, and curating shows, thereby perpetuating a hierarchical dynamic where knowledge is possessed by a few and sought after by others. However, we aim to present our work and research as a starting point, inviting feedback and engaging in dialogue. We recognize that you, the audience, may have unique perspectives, observations, and thoughts that we may have missed. Your input can influence our thinking, shaping future endeavors such as future shows or articles. Embracing the principles of systems thinking, which form the core of both “Limits to Growth” and our interdisciplinary approach, we decided it would be intriguing to have audiences respond to questions about their environments and the systems they navigate. We genuinely have no idea what they will say, and that’s what makes it truly remarkable. I’ve committed to responding and utilizing their insights, but I don’t yet know how exactly. When I encounter these responses, it will provide an opportunity to reflect, write, and collaborate in ways that cannot be predicted. These outcomes will be shared with the audience, allowing them to witness how their contributions may alter and enrich our ideas. In turn, this participation in knowledge creation may also influence future curators and scholars, generating intriguing ideas that continue to contribute to our ongoing efforts to gain a deeper understanding of the world we inhabit.

Artists who work with emerging technologies have a unique role in exploring and pushing creative boundaries. What makes artists Amelia Winger-Bearskin, Libby Heaney, Entangled Others with Robert M so unique in their view of the future? 

(Jesse) We had this Miro board where we tried to visually map out our process. It was an important step in narrowing down the selection of artists we wanted to curate. We wanted to identify the compelling questions that resonated with us, even if we didn’t have neat and definitive answers to wrap up with a bow. These three artists, or perhaps we could say five artists, including artist collectives, stood out because their work intersected with the diverse ideas and ongoing questions that captivated our attention.

(Charlotte) Along the way, we engaged in conversations with artists, including Twitter Spaces sessions. Another crucial aspect to consider was ensuring the show’s cohesiveness. We wanted visitors to have a seamless and coherent experience when they walked into the exhibition space. That’s why these three artists stood out—they not only had distinct styles and approaches, but their works also complemented each other, creating a sense of continuity and cohesion. It’s an essential aspect of any exhibition that we value.

(Jesse) All three artists have engaged with ‘web3’ in various ways, they may not exclusively focus on blockchain as their medium. There are two prominent technology categories examined in this exhibition: quantum computing and artificial intelligence. Each artist approaches these subjects in a way that allows us to grasp the capabilities of these technologies. Rather than overwhelming the audience with jargon like the measurement problem, uncertainty principle, neural networks, or data sets, which can be confusing, their aesthetic and visceral engagement provides a tangible understanding. It’s about using art as a mode of translation, cutting through complexity and jargon to offer an experiential perspective, a reference point. It’s similar to looking up the definition of a word and seeing how it’s used in a sentence. When encountering terms like “superposition,” the visual representation of quantum glitching and entangled neural networks overlapping provides a foothold for comprehension. It allows for deeper exploration if desired. So, in essence, one thing that makes these artists special is their ability to offer a new way of understanding the present moment. While their artworks do offer glimpses into the future, their primary contribution lies in helping us make sense of the current landscape through their aesthetic means of communication.

Amelia Winger-Bearskin 

“TO BODY” showcased at REALTIME challenges our perceptions of the urban landscape by using AI to remove human-made structures, revealing the flaws in our visual infrastructures. It encourages viewers to explore new ways of perceiving beyond the norms we have internalized. How do you think IA will keep on shaping the future? 

(Charlotte) I find it quite challenging for us to truly envision a world devoid of the structures we have constructed upon it. However, when we contemplate potential ecological disasters, one crucial aspect we consider is the impact they would have on shorelines and urban areas. In her work, she endeavors to provide us with a glimpse of what these spaces would be like as natural environments, free from human structures. Through her ingenious utilization of an inpainting algorithm, she enables us to perceive the glitch caused by their removal. I believe this perspective is valuable as it prompts us to question the necessity of these structures and reflect on our relationship with the environment. The glitch serves as a catalyst for exploring choices and recognizing our errors. It offers us an opportunity to perceive things differently and contemplate new perspectives.

(Jesse) Another aspect to consider is how these two chapters, part of a larger body of work, delve into the protocol of observing the sky. Charlotte and I are both intrigued by the ergonomic aspect of gazing at the sky and its inherent nature as a human system, comprised not only of particles within our atmosphere but also distant stars and galaxies spanning billions of light years. For millennia, people recognized it as a mode of knowledge and technology in itself. However, this notion is juxtaposed with the current trend of sky colonization, where airspace is being claimed and regulations are being established to determine ownership of something that was once a shared resource. This duality presents a captivating space for examination, rich with thought-provoking complexities. Adding this perspective further enriches the discourse.

Libby Heaney 

 “Q is for Climate (?)” exhibited in REALTIME 1: LILYPADS raises thought-provoking questions about the impact of future quantum computers on climate change and the potential for thinking like the climate through the lens of quantum computing. How do you believe quantum computing can potentially reshape our understanding of and approach to climate-related challenges?

(Jesse) Without assuming Libby’s perspective, many individuals in this field already hold the belief that the climate operates as a quantum computer in its own right. They perceive reality as fundamentally quantum, computed in this intricate manner. As part of ther work, “Q is for Climate(?)” aims to deepen our comprehension of this concept and, potentially, reconnect us with a form of planetary intelligence from which we have distanced ourselves. It becomes evident that employing technology in this manner serves as a means of rediscovering ancient and ancestral forms of knowledge and intelligence that we have gradually severed ties with.

Entangled Others

with Robert M

“Decohering Delineation” exhibited at REALTIME, delves into the entanglement of neural networks and oceanic data to explore the interconnectedness of ecosystems and specimens, both artificial and natural. Presenting alternative ways of seeing our world and reimagining ourselves as part of the more-than-human, what impact or shift in perspective do you think this evokes in viewers?

(Charlotte) In this work, they utilize ocean data from various regions around the world to illustrate how different entities within the ecosystem are transforming. This simple visualization serves as a starting point to grasp the ongoing changes. However, there is an intricate interconnection between these entities. When you observe the critters in each quadrant of their artwork, you will notice ethereal images, as if they are in the process of metamorphosis. While they don’t change in precisely the same manner, you can perceive distinct references. This visual representation serves as another way to depict the notion of entanglement. Both in Libby’s work and in this particular piece, these visualizations offer a glimpse into layered time and the complex interrelationships that exist. By presenting these concepts visually, it becomes more accessible and enables individuals to delve deeper into this intricate scientific idea and expand their understanding, if they choose.

(Jesse) It’s helpful to remember that an algorithm is essentially a set of rules. Entangled Others have long been intrigued by the relationship between the algorithms we create using computing technology and the algorithms inherent in DNA, which play a fundamental role in the creation of life. Through neural networks, they utilize existing visual imagery and information about animals to imagine the existence of artificial life forms that could have emerged in an alternate version of history. Yet, the process goes a step further in Decohering Delineation by entangling these different models together, allowing us to confront the subject from the perspective of quantum computing, which we briefly touched upon earlier.

How do the artists in this context perceive the relationship between the present moment, future, and past? How do they emphasize the significance of actions taken in the present for shaping the future?(Charlotte) We were just discussing layered time, which refers to how the present moment and its immediate circumstances are positioned in relation to technologies often regarded as futuristic. Across all these artists, they perceive the present moment as the future. They recognize that our actions and choices in the here and now shape the future we will ultimately be a part of. So, in essence, the future is already unfolding in the present; we simply need to perceive it as such. Through their visualizations and artistic expressions, they can demonstrate how time operates in this layered manner. Also, we exist where we are now because of the past. The past remains within us, embedded in our DNA, present in the air we breathe, manifested in the architectures we inhabit, and integrated into the computers we utilize. We are simultaneously living in the past and the future. This perspective, perhaps, provides a helpful way of explaining that even though we discuss the future, we must also remain rooted in the present tense, acknowledging the profound impact of our current actions stemming from past choices and moments.