FUTURE: VICTIMS RIGHTS
84x110cm, court transcript and court drawings
Click on the thumbnails to view full image
ABOUT THE WORK
In Helen's own words
The Trial of Superdebthunterbot is a project initiated in 2015 by Helen Knowles which seeks to explore questions of ethics and accountability in relation to the increasing and often unseen computer automation of our lives. Starting out as a performance, the prosecution and defence speeches were written and presented by lawyers; Oana Labontu Radu and Laurie Elks. TV actor, Mark Frost played the role of the judge in front of a real jury made up of volunteers. The Superdebthunterbot algorithm was housed in a see-through computer built by artist Daniel Dressel providing a tangible object to be tried in the court room.
Re-staged in 2016 at Southwark Crown Court and developed into a 45 minute film. The work imagines a speculative scenario not too far removed from current practices in technology and finance. A debt collecting company buys up student loans and uses unconventional means to ensure fewer loan defaulters by targeting individuals through the use of big data. A chain of events leads to deaths in medical trials.
Superdebthunterbot has the “capacity to self-educate, to learn and to modify it’s coding sequences independent of human oversight” (Susan Schullppi, Deadly Algorithms). Can an algorithm be held culpable in a court of Law?
The Magistrates Exhibition has acquired the 3/20, artist book, The Trial of Superdebthunterbot, from an edition of 20. The book consists of a hand screen-printed transcript of the court trial and digital prints of court room drawings made by Helen Knowles and Liza Brett. It has been framed specifically for the acquisition to reflect the way the installation presents the works.
Helen Knowles (b.1975) is an artist and curator of the Birth Rites Collection. She has a BA Hons from Glasgow School of Art and MFA Fine Art from Goldsmiths University. She lectures widely around the UK and abroad. Recent and forthcoming shows include Trickle Down, A New Vertical Sovereignty, arebyte London (2020) ‘Future and the Arts: AI, Robotics, Cities, Life - How Humanity Will Live Tomorrow’ The Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, NEMO festival, 104 Paris, The Ministry of Justice and Consumer Affairs, Berlin, 'Artistic intelligence' Hannover Kunstverein (2019) ‘Impakt Festival, ‘Los Algorithmos Suaves’, Centro del Carme, Valenica, Potsdam Film Museum (2018) ‘Zero Recoil Damage’,FolkestoneTriennial, ‘OpenCodes’, ZKM Karlsruhe, Germany, ‘Codex’ D21, Leipzig, The Trial of Superdebthunterbot, Zabludowicz Collection, London.
We had a short chat with Helen to get to know her better
How did you get into making art?
My Mum is a ceramicist, and she used to take me drawing when I was doing my A-Levels. I quite like writing, so I remember having to choose between English Literature and Art. I ended up going to art school in Glasgow, which was actually completely the wrong degree for me. I did painting and I’m definitely not a painter.
I’m interested in politics, sociology and anthropology, all these sorts of subjects. At the time painting in Glasgow was run by mainly men, so there was a real macho culture and it was all about artists in their studio, very introverted. I’m not that kind of person at all. It wasn’t the right course for me, although I really enjoy drawing and my work always contains an element of drawing in it.
The choice to be an artist… You just do it! I suppose when you’re younger it’s easier. It’s a precarious life, there is a lot of financial instability. As an artist you meet so many different people, you really get to see the whole gamut of social structures from the very poor to the very rich. It’s a strange choice - I don’t know if I would make it again! Maybe I would choose to be a lawyer (laughs)
Did you stick with painting or did you change course?
I stuck with painting, but I ended up doing a lot of sculpture and paper-making. I was quite interested in the process of paper-making and my degree show was full of sculpture. After leaving art school in 1998, I ended up travelling a lot. I went to India, and when I returned I thought I had a tropical disease, but it turned out I was actually pregnant.
With painting, I think because I was so young and had no experience of life I couldn’t really find my feet, I couldn’t find what I wanted to talk about. Then I went on to have 2 children and it was the experience of giving birth and discovering the politics around birth that had a really profound effect on me. In 2008 I ended up curating an exhibition called Birth Rites where I got artists to work with midwives and obstetricians, it toured from the Glasgow Science Centre to the Manchester Museum. Following this I was left with 5 art works which had been commissioned and so I set up a collection of contemporary art on childbirth.
It wasn’t until 2012 that I came back to my art practice and made a proper body of work - a series of portraits. I was looking at videos on Youtube that women posted online of their own births and I made a series of 7 large screen prints which were screen shots of the point where the baby crowns and women throw their head back. I was interested in these empowered women sharing knowledge online. That was my full return to art practice.
Following that I went to do an MFA at Goldsmiths and that suited me to a tee. It was a very conceptual course, at a university full of sociologists and anthropologists!
How would you describe your practice and influences?
I guess what defines my practice is that it’s not about process. Some people are very obsessed with the materiality of work. I am sensitive to aesthetics, how I deliver work and what it looks like, but the thing that always drives the work is much more the engagement with other disciplines. I suppose the materiality of my work is in the thinking.
I find the writing of Hito Steyerl quite amazing and performance works by Tino Segal. I remember seeing a Tino Segal work in the Manchester International Festival when he reanimated a manga character. He got an 11 year old girl to perform and it was such a strange and deep and quite abstract appropriation of a comic book character talking to an audience - that was pretty amazing. I find the writing in the London Review of Books very inspiring.
I always have a semi-realistic element to my work, there’s a feeling of losing yourself into abstraction. Painting for me felt too removed from real life, but at the same time I do enjoy the 2D plane and am particularly excited by photography. With painting I understand why we needed it before we had photography - we needed to record and document things. After that painting became abstraction and it lost its function. A lot of my work is about that balance - something being functional and imaginative at the same time. It may be something ambiguous in nature but it forces you to consider real questions.
The collection that I run, is a collection of contemporary art on child birth. And it’s about how those artworks, whatever they explore, might impact on midwifery and medical practice. I’m constantly looking at ways that artworks can have this dual nature of being functional and exploratory.
Why was it important for you to start a collection?
Birth Rites is a taboo subject, always has been. It’s become a lot more fashionable in the last 10-15 years and people feel more able to approach the subject. The idea was to take the financial tool of a collection and utilise it for something that is relevant to everyone. Calling something a collection denotes authority and commands attention that these works wouldn’t traditionally get.
The idea is that it is embedded within a medical institution, currently at King's College, London in buildings across Guy's Campus, and it's about how the works can impact on practice and on the teaching of this profession. The collection would not be what it is if it wasn't within this space of medicine, midwifery and nursing.