Breakfast Ritual: Art Must Be Artificial

Fei Yining, Chuck Kuan

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Fei Yining and Chuck Kuan, Breakfast Ritual: Art Must Be Artificial (still), 2019.

Artist Cinemas presents Breakfast Ritual: Art Must Be Artificial
Fei Yining, Chuck Kuan

8 Minutes
*Closed captions available; please select CC in player settings

Artist Cinemas
Week #5

March 22–28, 2021

Join us on e-flux Video & Film for an online screening of Fei Yining’s and Chuck Kuan’s Breakfast Ritual: Art Must Be Artificial (2019), on view from Monday, March 22 through Sunday, March 28, 2021.

Breakfast Ritual presents a speculative glimpse into a post-Anthropocene future in which human civilization as we know it no longer exists. Over breakfast, an AI in the form of a young girl performs a ritual in semblance of Marina Abramović’s seminal work Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful (1975).

The film is presented here alongside an interview with Fei Yining and Chuck Kuan, conducted by Evonne Jiawei Yuan.

Breakfast Ritual: Art Must Be Artificial is the fifth installment of Crashing into the Future, a program of films and interviews convened by Cao Fei, and comprising the fifth cycle of Artist Cinemas, a long-term, online series of film programs curated by artists for e-flux Video & Film.

Crashing into the Future will run from February 22 through April 5, 2021, screening a new film each week accompanied by an interview with the filmmaker(s) conducted by Cao Fei and invited guests.

Fei Yining and Chuck Kuan in conversation with Evonne Jiawei Yuan

Evonne Jiawei Yuan (EJY):
Let’s start from your collaboration first. To my knowledge, you two are not really a creative duo and each of you has a personal practice. What brought you together for the production of Breakfast Ritual: Art Must Be Artificial (2019)? What were your central motivations in developing the project?

Chuck Kuan (CK):
Yining and I were classmates at Parsons from 2015 to 2017, but the collaboration really started when she invited me to visit her studio in Shanghai in the summer of 2018, where we unboxed and started playing with some of the new motion-capture equipment that she had just purchased.

Fei Yining (FYN):
Since then we have kept in close contact, routinely discussing topics we were both interested in such as speculative futures, nonhuman subjectivity, the aesthetics of boredom and mundanity, and so on. So our collaboration on Breakfast Ritual was largely driven by these mutual interests. We had also developed a knack for working with each other’s schedules across our respective time-zones between Shanghai and New York.

Breakfast Ritual is largely performance-based, with the subtitle and mantra Art Must Be Artificial clearly referencing Marina Abramović’s performance piece Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful (1975). But it seems the adaptation was mostly applied to the monologue of the character you created. What is the role of the spoken text in the work? Do you see the text as the driving force informing your choices?

At the beginning of the project when everything was still uncertain, a formless shape, or you could say a blurry shadow, emerged in my mind. I could hear it utter, “…must be …artificial,” “…repeat this a thousand times and the moon will rise again…” (though the latter words didn’t make it into the final cut). The character who utters these words—its image and personal details—only gradually materialized as we wrote the text and read through every line again and again till we were able to recite the whole thing from memory. First, Chuck performed and recorded the voice in New York, and the character became an ensouled being. But it was still a bodiless character—a digital sound file floating in cyberspace, un-visualized and unrevealed. Back in Shanghai, I mo-capped myself to make it an embodied one—meticulously recording and re-recording the motions to make use of the subtle nuances that arise through multiple takes. In the end, we both got fragmented and somehow performed the nonhuman (fictitious, AI) character. Perhaps, this does make the process seem “performance-based,” but in the speculative scenario where our character is seen enjoying breakfast—would its actions arising out of boredom count as a kind of performance too? This is where the performance element is called into question.

Yes, I think we certainly created performed components for the piece. I wonder if that necessarily translates to a performance-based process or work? At least not in the sense that we performed through the character, as much as performed for it. And what do we make of the fictive future beings who, in the universe of the work, were the ones who actually created this character? Who is to say what they make of our traces, in their attempt to reconstruct a capsule of our present lives in our future past? These words from Abramović, which for us were integral to the formation of this work, may as well be nothing more than just some line extracted from one of those datasets labeled “performance texts, 1970s,” straight out of a freemium AI personality-formation preset. Does that, in turn, make their recitation an incidental re-performance?​

So the character should not be seen as an avatar that manifests the self-existent psyches of its authors, but an AI with “painted” skin or an AI-controlled creature denying your authorship?

In Hinduism, the term “avatar” refers to a concept in which a deity makes an appearance on Earth in human form. While the relationship between embodiment and the embodied in the work does resemble this idea, it is also more complicated and layered. What we did here was not to deify ourselves through the avatar. If anything, it might be more accurate to say that ours is a portrayal of the (very non-human and incorporeal) beings of which this character is an avatar of.

Could you speak a little about the technical aspects of creating the character? Which software did you use to visualize it?

To create the character, we used the application VRoid Studio, a 3D animation avatar maker commonly used by Vtubers. For the most part, we ended up recreating a figure heavily resembling the default software settings—that of a young school girl—despite customizing almost every aspect. This was our attempt at de-personalizing and de-authorizing the character.

Breakfast Ritual was not projected as a pulp science fiction. Rather than probing a technological futurescape, it might be more accurate to describe the endeavor as a future AI’s imaginings of a past human dreamscape. It does so by analyzing the limited data that still exists of the human world, a kind of archeological study of our present as future past. Its “painted” skin, therefore, is also a byproduct of this defragmentation process.

Some of us think of AI as our children, some think of them as our god(s), and yet others simply see them as reflections of ourselves. In Breakfast Ritual, the AI may very well be taking on the role of all three, but it is also a projection of us, as imagined by nonhuman entities in the future.

AI optimists like Ray Kurzweil of The Singularity is Near (2005) foresee a utopia where human and machine intelligence merge. Are you optimistic about the prospects of AI as well? Why is the statement “…art(ist) must be artificial…” delivered by the character in the first place? What is the value of artificiality?

Why “…art(ist) must be artificial…”? To ask that is to question: Is this the manifesto of the fictional character, or that of the artists themselves? I believe the answer is most likely neither. However, the absurd naivete of this statement allows us to paint a possibly pessimistic picture of a techno-future world. Like how I often refer to the two screens in Breakfast Ritual as a self-contained and enclosed bubble, the thick white fog outside the window obfuscating the conditions of the state of humankind. What appears to be a dystopic future built upon the ruins of human civilization could just as likely be the fizzlings of the Anthropocene on its last legs. This work, this image, is the moment before the bubble bursts, an asymptotic descent into the bifurcation of the future.

At the same time, we are caught in a collective oscillation between artificial intelligence anxiety to the point of paranoia, and confidence to the point of hubris. Is this repeating incantation not also a reflection of the self-hypnosis of our own times? “…art(ist) must be artificial…” Is that a descriptive statement or a prescriptive one—or both? Depending on your answer, you might find the character’s lingering chants transform from a warm embrace into a snake, and then maybe back again.

I think my answer is both, since I can see how the fictional character is both desired and desiring. AI means a war of desire for many. We are always wanting both, to possess the embodied technology and have it be a continued proxy existence of ourselves. When “…art(ist) must be artificial…” recurs in my mind, it effectually dispels the notion about who is making what. Whether “art is making artist” or “artist is making art” no longer matters. They are interchangeable beings. Maybe this relates to the issue of autonomy that you may not intend to introduce in the work, but nonetheless hovers about the scene.

I’m trying to come up with something simple and true in response to that, but I think we agree!

For more information, contact program@e-flux.com.

Posthumanism, Technology
Artificial intelligence, Autonomy, Dystopia, Experimental Film, Futures, Futurism, Robotics
Return to Crashing into the Future
Return to Artist Cinemas

is a designer, new media artist, and photographer. He primarily employs video, multimedia installation, and animation. In 2018, he co-founded Lucky Risograph, an artist-run printing press on the Lower East Side, New York.


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