The Best of Mr. Chao: A Futurologist Collection

Interview by Sophie Wright
Published on LensCulture, online, February, 2019

Beneath the glossy surface of the latest technological developments, what does the future hold? With the help of his imaginary researcher named Mr. Chao, an AI with a sense of humour, Brazilian photographer Guilherme Gerais has created an eccentric cabinet of curiosities that ponders a new vision of what lies ahead—without neglecting what came before. Doing away with the sleek imagery of technological progress that dominates our collective imagination, the photographer’s alternative universe is warm, and at times chaotic, where old technologies are given as much love as new devices.

At the heart of Mr. Chao’s diverse collection is the often overlooked link between nature and technology, which has always provided a wealth of inspiration for our human inventions. Influenced by the ideas of British philosopher Timothy Morton, Gerais’ vision of the future is one of interconnectedness, where nature, objects and human beings co-exist without separation.

In this interview for LensCulture, Gerais talks about rethinking the way we look at the world and our place in it, embracing messiness, turning science inside out and the inspirational genius of slime mold.

LensCulture: What drives you? And why is photography your chosen way of exploring your interests?

Guilherme Gerais: My main area of interest lies in understanding the universe, consciousness, time, quantum physics, AI, and our current moment of rethinking our existence on planet Earth. I am very interested in telling stories, experimenting with narrative, and thinking of alternate ways of seeing what I’m looking at. Photography seems to be an interesting medium to do that, especially when the photobook is the final form. I like how photography gives you the possibility to reinvent yourself for every story, just like a movie director or a novel writer does. The fact that photography is now ubiquitous somehow helps with this—it has almost released the photographer from this tired view that you have to stick with one visual style forever.

LC: How did the idea for The Best of Mr. Chao come to you?

GG: It happened while I was doing an MFA in Photography at the Royal School of Arts (KASK) in Ghent, Belgium. In 2017, I learned about the work of the futurologist Jim Dator at an exhibition in Antwerp. I was intrigued by his activities and point of view as a futurologist. In one of his YouTube lectures, he mentioned that he leans on images of the present to ‘draw’ ideas of the future. It made me think: how can someone ‘draw’ ideas of the future? I then thought that Mr. Chao could be my own ‘fictional’ futurologist, and thought about him making his own collection of images. It was very important for me to research something unfamiliar to me.

LC: Our ideas about the future and technology, and how we visualize it, are at the heart of the collection, which proposes an imaginary and almost DIY vision of the future. What kind of view of technology would you say you are working against?

GG: I think there’s a form of ‘sloganism’ that comes into play when we speak about artificial intelligence, algorithms, robots and so on. While working on this project, I almost felt trapped in perpetuating a view of technology that was not my own. I believe that our visual imagination of technology is pretty much linked to American movie productions, and the narrative that they create—we tend to accept it and adopt it naturally as our own. Perhaps this is because we cannot imagine anything else, or maybe we don’t have the technology that they have, or the money they invest in it, or maybe it’s because there aren’t that many film studios capable of rendering 3D movies as real, sharp and bloody as the ones they are able to produce in Hollywood.

Here in Brazil, a journalist coined a genre to describe a few sci-fi films recently produced here: “Cyberpunk from the third world.” I encountered this phrase while making this work, and somehow it felt very close to the way I might summarize my own project, or how I was imagining and producing these photographs. In the end, I tried to be more honest about my view of technology and not use tropes found in other visual works about the future. Instead, I proposed a different reading of it. Like you said: it’s an almost DIY view of the future.

LC: The collection is a mix of imagined scenarios, but it’s also based on interdisciplinary research. Tell me about what makes up the collection and the research that underpins it. Who were your main influences? How much ‘factual’ information went into the final images?

GG: While doing the work, I read several authors like Timothy Morton, Bruno Latour, Yuval Noah Harari, David Wallace-Wells and Kevin Kelly, among others. They were my main influences in terms of shining some light on the future, pointing out its dangers and also possible solutions. I would consider the photographs I made in universities of collections and research more ‘factual.’ Around 40% of the work comes from that.

LC: How did you start building this collection of images? What did you start with and how did it evolve?

GG: Initially, I had a list of many technical ideas and concepts to guide me, such as holograms, augmented reality, the Internet of things, 3D printing, research on robotics (more specifically: soft robotics), and other concepts that I became interested in and learned about throughout the research. One of them is a particular type of algorithm called the Bio-Algorithm, where natural phenomena can serve as inspiration for computational solutions. These phenomena range from spirals and magnetism to using the collective behavior of cockroaches, ants, bees and fungi. In Belgium, I found laboratories at universities where some of these insects were being studied.

In my home, I also had pages of articles, images of scientific papers, YouTube screenshots and other materials spread out across a wall. The work was structured into three layers: photographs produced at laboratories in universities in Belgium, photographs that ‘mimic’ scientific images I discovered while doing the research, and photographs I created myself, based on my interpretation and imagination of some these technological concepts. I was interested in working with a homogenous style, but developing a deeper and layered series.

LC: Can you elaborate on this idea of a ‘computable universe’ that is central to the collection?

GG: I discovered this concept in the book A Computable Universe: Understanding and Exploring Nature as Computation, put together by researcher Hector Zenil. It is a complex book, with technical essays that aren’t necessarily philosophical, though I tried to understand a few of them within my own limitations. Overall, the book tries to comprehend the universe as a big computer, drawing relations between nature and computation, forging links between the two topics, displaying how closely they are organized and how they behave in quite a similar way. Alan Turing is a key figure on this point of view, and a pioneer of this idea. It’s incredible to see how the universe and nature deal with information in a similar way.

LC: The link between technology and nature’s own ‘computation’ is embedded in many of the images. Tell me about some of the ways technology has borrowed from nature’s blueprints.

GG: One of the most well-known examples is fungi slime mold. It’s quite mysterious how this brainless organism actually functions. Somehow it always finds its ‘food’ in the shortest and most efficient way between its initial position and the source of food. This has inspired many different types of research and studies. There’s a well known experiment where a piece of food was placed above every train stop on the subway map of Tokyo. The slime mold spread out to map the many possible configurations, highlighting the shortest routes between the stations and creating the most efficient overall system map. The route the slime took was pretty close to the one made by Japanese technicians.

The collective intelligence of ants also inspired the creation of an algorithm for social networks. This is based on ant behavior, and how they are capable of finding a path between the ant nest and sources of food by secreting and following a chemical trail of pheromones. This behavior was translated into an algorithm that accelerates the search for relationships among elements present in social networks. The super-organism of an ant’s nest or a beehive is an amazing case of cooperation and mutualism that exists inter-species.

LC: In contrast to the very slick ways technology is represented, your photographs seem to fall between order and chaos. They have an analog slant to them, exposing the inner workings and materials of the objects you focus on. How do your ideas about technology extend into the aesthetic choices for the photographs?

GG: Although we want to believe we are very close to some technological advancements, in my opinion, the fact is the opposite. In this work, I tried to translate this view aesthetically, always keeping some edges or imperfections on view, leaving paint marks on wood boards or improvising with tape, wire, debris, rusted material and brick as elements for the imagined situations. I also didn’t want to be driven by this shiny, silver, clean metal look often found in any visualization of the future.

I wanted to have the feel of a construction site—something still in development—in the middle of being built but not yet finished, resulting in a strange mix of new and obsolete elements discarded in the face of more advanced technologies. I was looking to create an uncanny feeling in the photographs—one of mystery and magic. One nice coincidence was that while visiting the labs in universities, I found out that their environment was filled with improvisation as well. For example, a few of the robot prototypes that I photographed still had paint left on their surface.

LC: What was the working process behind building each image? Did you have a strict set of guidelines about the kinds of materials you wanted to use?

GG: I think when you start a project and have the decisions too defined already in your mind, you exclude the good opportunities that you might discover along the way. If the final result is unknown, the possibilities are higher. Since I was working with the idea of a collection of images belonging to an AI, I made the choice to mostly use the center of the frame for the object or subject placement; I wanted to be as absent as possible as a ‘photographer’ in terms of making decisions such as finding the right composition, angles and exposure. I wanted the photographs to feel like they had been created by a more mechanical or computational gesture.

Another choice was the use of color. I realized that in scientific papers, vivid colors are often used to signal changes in the experiment—material, substance and temperature—so it’s a present element in many of the images. On the other hand, I used block colors as the background in some photographs to get close to the old fashioned images I researched in catalogs and encyclopedias. Interestingly, most of the material I used was either disposable, or things I bought in industrial supply chain stores—a key detail for me while choosing the materials for the photographs.

LC: While we are certainly looking into the future, we also look to the past and at old things that were once considered new. Why was obsolete technology also an important element for you to include?

GG: In terms of the objects themselves, I thought it was an interesting exercise to reflect on this afterlife of technology when it ceases to serve human beings. The collection provided the perfect context to see them as documents of thoughts, decisions, memory and ideas. The object turns into something else after it is released out of human hands; it can be analyzed according to different directions. New technology is actually built based on an array of old technology, even if it is invisible to us.

LC: Mr. Chao, an AI with personality and feelings, is the protagonist and owner of the collection. Who is he? Tell me more about his characteristics and why he came into being.

GG: The idea for Mr. Chao was mainly inspired by the figure of the human futurologist. Since I was talking about technological developments, it made sense to imagine a virtual futurologist. He’s an AI inspired by this human figure, charged with the task of scanning and analyzing images from the present in order to reflect on the future. And considering the vast amount of images produced by human beings today, I imagined that a human futurologist wouldn’t even be able to process all of this data. That’s when Mr. Chao stepped in. The project was organized according to this premise. It’s the story of an artificial intelligence and its collection of images, and what it chooses as something important to analyze.

Mr. Chao is not a pragmatic AI. He has a personality, ideas, opinions, and even dreams. He is not an AI with a negative outlook on the future, nor is he wary of its danger. He prays for a balance between nature and humankind. That is what makes him different. He is capable of making us look at life again—at all its components from non-human beings to man-made objects to nature—and in doing so, implores us to think of the idea of coexistence, where we all lean on each other to sustain our species on this planet. I imagine him as quite old and obsolete, with a grumpy voice and a very particular sense of humor.

LC: Neither sceptical nor perfect in the way that technology is often depicted, Mr. Chao proposes a different, warmer view on artificial intelligence. What kind of relationship do you want your viewers to have with him?

GG: There are a few messages I often get from some people telling me their feelings about the work. They often mention that they laughed or were surprised, intrigued and curious about Mr. Chao. The fact that some people actually believe he is real was a very nice thing to hear, and was incredible to me. I like to think of Mr. Chao with no intrinsic superiority and an open and porous notion of the self, filled with uncertainty, providing a healthy friction in our relationship to technology.

LC: How would you describe the underlying message you hope Mr. Chao and his research delivers to viewers?

GG: I think the whole idea of Mr. Chao and his collection of images is to create a pretext for us to think and reflect upon ourselves, our attitudes towards the way we treat nature as Other, the planet, and in a faraway future: sentient machines. Mr. Chao does not condemn humanity. I think the overarching structure of the series, where different things coexist and live together in the same body of work, is also the underlying message of the project: the idea that everything is interconnected.

I like to think that stories live forever and can perpetuate feelings, ideas, dreams, moments and documents, from a specific period of life. This work flirts with the idea of AI in a fictional, personal way, more than a realistic or literal one. I don’t pretend to convince the viewer about technology or AI—I don’t even have the technical expertise for that. From what I’ve read, we are very far from having an AI like Mr. Chao, but that is the freedom we have in art, and I think this could lead us to a better understanding of life on Earth.