UCI computer scientists make art come alive at the Venice Biennale

UC Irvine professors Alexandru Nicolau, left, and Alexander Veidenbaum, right, pose for a photo in front of the Romanian Pavilion in the Giardini della Biennale in Venice, Italy, while Belu-Simion Fainaru, center, observes one of their collaborative art installations.
(Courtesy of Alexandru Nicolau)

“Who are you?” asks Alexandru Nicolau.

He waits for an answer, but the painting — displayed on an otherwise completely black screen — sits inanimately in front of the UC Irvine computer science professor.

Nothing happens. Not at first.

“I was Ceausescu,” the painting suddenly responds, “secretary of the party and president of our country. You should have known that.”

That would be Nicolae Ceausescu — the last Communist leader of Romania who was deposed during a 1989 revolution and later executed along with his wife, Elena, after being found guilty of economic sabotage and genocide.

Now Ceausescu, or at least a digital composite of him, is “alive” again and answers questions from visitors who pass through the Romanian Institute of Culture and Humanistic Research in Venice, Italy.

The composite is one of three collaborative installations that Nicolau and fellow UCI computer science professor Alexander Veidenbaum contributed to the latest Venice Biennale, one of the oldest and most prestigious cultural festivals in the world.

The professors began working on the project last fall after Israeli-Romanian artist Belu-Simion Fainaru, who Nicolau said was a childhood friend, was formally accepted in the festival. Fainaru worked with them on their submissions.

Four UCI computer science doctoral students also were on the team.

Nicolau, Veidenbaum and Fainaru had previously collaborated at the 2018 Mediations Biennale in Poland. The theme there focused on shared experiences and memories of the Holocaust, in addition to life under communist rule in post-World War II Europe.

The Ceausescu installation borrows from American artist Gari Melchers’ 1931 portrait of railroad magnate Leonor F. Loree. A digital re-creation of Ceausescu’s head was superimposed over Loree’s, matching the painting in color and style.

The two other projects from the UCI team are another “talking head” — featuring an avatar of Paul Celan, a renown Jewish-Romanian, German-language poet and Holocaust survivor — and the “Talking Plant,” which recites Celan’s poetry, depending on where you touch it.

Both talking heads use artificial intelligence to interpret and respond to questions, though Nicolau and Veidenbaum said Celan’s is more complex and will continue to learn and adapt to audience participation over time.

One of the “talking heads” featured at the Venice Biennale is that of Nicolae Ceausescu, the last Communist leader of Romania. It uses artificial intelligence to answer questions.
(Courtesy of Alexandru Nicolau)

The talking plant, which is made of plastic, uses cameras to interpret when and where a participant touches it. It focuses more on tactile interaction, Nicolau said, and is designed to elicit a response.

“At some point, [the talking plant] will get angry and say, ‘Don’t touch me,’ and it will escalate if you continue,” he said. “‘Hey, stop!’ ‘Get away from me!’ ‘What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?’ So, the idea is to create a reaction in the person. It’s obviously an inanimate — I mean, it’s not even a real plant. It’s not a living being and yet it reacts like that and then people … will turn red and they have very human reactions.”

One of the challenges for the project, Nicolau said, was blending the computer scientists’ vision with Fainaru’s artistic view. Things that seemed trivial to Fainaru were complicated, and vice versa.

“Artistically, we created a lot of context — like, how the plant interacts was a script that [Nicolau] wrote,” Veidenbaum said. “We had to get [Fainaru’s] approval because it’s not our standalone work … so, there was a lot of talking back and forth and some of the things we liked, he didn’t like.”

Other issues, such as finding what computers could run the programming and what television screens could endure extended outdoor exposure, also posed significant challenges but, in Nicolau’s mind, also raised interesting questions.

“How realistic should this look?” he said. “So, yes, you’re having Ceausescu, but should you have an animated picture? Do you want it to be as real that you cannot tell that it’s a computer animation? What would be the point of that? Does it make any point?”

Nicolau and Veidenbaum said they feel similar projects, in which art intersects computer science, will become more common in the future. They plan to hold a symposium in October where interested members of both worlds can come together to discuss what those interactions might look like.

“Computer-based or generated art, it’s not a new thought,” Veidenbaum said. “People have been doing this for quite a while. How they can do it nowadays is much more interesting than what they could do in, say, the 1980s.

“Where the field will go with this, we don’t know and they don’t know,” he added. “A lot of this needs to be discussed and presented and see how [the] public reacts to it.”

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