Cassandra received one of the worst curses inflicted on the mortals of Ancient Greece. Varying tales exist about the events leading up to her fate, but the outcome is always the same. First, Apollo grants Cassandra the gift of prophecy. Then, after she refuses to have sex with him, Apollo curses her to speak true prophecy but never be believed. Though she doesn’t experience any bodily harm or transformations, Cassandra’s curse feels acutely torturous. Apollo condemns Cassandra to a life of being gaslighted by everyone around her, and thus forces her to join two complex historical lineages: those of the oracles and those of objectified, mistrusted women. Both archetypes play important roles in today’s technological, political, and social ecosystem, often with devastating effects.
The past six years have produced particularly disastrous failures in modern prophesy—a technology now based more on predictive algorithms than oracles or animal intestines, yet still similarly unreliable—with the presidential election of Donald Trump and the coronavirus pandemic as two extreme examples. In the case of Trump’s election, political prophets, also known as pollsters, were way off the mark. Few really believed it could ever happen, with national polls predicting Hillary Clinton as the clear winner. And yet, here we are, in the fourth and—one hopes—final year of his presidency. With the Covid-19 pandemic, disaster struck not because the predictions of scientific authorities were incorrect, but because too few people heeded their warnings and delayed taking action too long. Studies estimate that tens of thousands of lives could have been saved if the US had enforced social distancing measures even just one week earlier. Which prophets and prophecies we choose to listen to, both individually and on a societal level, plays an important and multifaceted role in our lives—a role increasingly influenced by new technologies such as artificial intelligence. In her multimedia installation UWU Channel Radiance, on view at Cubbitt in London from February 1–9, 2020, Bulgarian-born, London-based artist Gery Georgieva combines mythology, prophecy, and algorithmic technology to evoke a dystopian future and satirize our current media climate.
For the exhibition, which was cut short due to the pandemic, Georgieva drew from an algorithm created by technology cooperative Black Shuck to analyze Cubitt’s thirty-year institutional archive and predict the gallery’s programming (artist bios, press releases, curatorial statements) until the year 3000. In the seven-channel, ten-minute video Sybil’s Noon Shower of Stones (2020), Georgieva combined text produced by the algorithm with other writing sourced from online advice forums like Yahoo Questions, Quora, and Mumsnet, as well as folk tales and mythology. The video piece highlights the paradoxical necessity for both foresight and a healthy skepticism of anyone claiming to know what the future holds.
Tonight: we reflect on the discovery that this is all it could be for us. The fragile ones will have hard reckonings. The strong will descend into their precipice and come out with just two scratches. The biggest losers will be the capable oxen. They will release the lambs from the mossy cave, and any attempt at a peace process will come too late.
Seven screens create a digital altar for an oracular news anchor played by Georgieva, who occupies the central screen, reading the absurd, alarmist monologue. Overhead, a glittering disco ball stands in for an all-seeing eye. Below Georgieva, two horizontal screens play mirror images of a fountain in the artist’s hometown of Varna, Bulgaria, of a female statue standing akimbo inside streams of water. In the bottom center screen, we see silhouetted female dancers on stage at a nightclub in Varna called Extravaganza.
To the right and left of the central video, twin vertical screens play footage of Georgieva dancing in a dark, rocky cave as a sharp ray of sun pierces through a waterfall curtaining the entrance. The cave, located in Predannack Falls in Cornwall, England, inspired the “noon shower” in the work’s title. The rocky alcove only receives sunlight for an hour at noon and the waterfall only appears at low tide. The other element of the title names Georgieva’s news anchor prophet character: Sybil.
Originally the name of a particular elderly prophetess in Greek legend, Sybil—also spelled Sibyl or Sibylla—became a more generic title for other female seers. Through her performance as Sybil the news anchor, Georgieva proposes two possible, miserable messages. The first illustrates how women’s statements, especially those warning of potential danger or calling out societal problems are frequently interpreted: as a random jumble of quasi-mystical nonsense. The recent #MeToo movement and subsequent rise in women and girls coming forward to expose their abusers demonstrates the long and horrific trend of exploiting and abusing anyone in that gender category.
The second possibility suggests that the information fed to the public by major media corporations is nothing more than buzzwords strung together by a computer algorithm programmed to produce phrases that elicit predetermined emotional responses. Many media companies, such as Bloomberg, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and the Associated Press already use artificial intelligence, sometimes called “robot reporters” to do everything from copyediting to content generation, often with broad, negative effects. Not surprisingly, the rise of media bots corresponds with massive layoffs and budget cuts in the industry. Further, in its short existence, AI has developed a reputation for being overwhelmingly biased in favor of white men and against everyone else, especially Black women.
Georgieva’s Sybil offers a fable in the tradition of comedic tragedy. We can laugh at the ridiculous newscast, while also considering the ominous implications of AI-generated media and the technology’s other applications. MIT Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini and her co-author Timnit Gebru found that AI-powered facial recognition software from companies like Microsoft, IBM, and Megvii correctly identify white male faces 99 percent of the time, but Black female faces were incorrectly identified more than 20 percent of the time.
These errors can lead to potentially deadly situations. In January of this year, Robert Julian-Borchak Williams was arrested because facial recognition software matched him to a suspect of a crime he hadn’t committed. Entities ranging from airport security and police forces to the Department of Motor Vehicles and the FBI use facial recognition software. The technology applies both to images captured via CCTV cameras in public spaces and internet searches of photos posted on social media with or without the individual’s knowledge or consent. Most recently, police departments across the U.S. have been using the technology to identify protestors and arrest them after the protests take place. As an immensely powerful and wildly under-regulated tool, AI-powered products pose a disproportionate risk to the most vulnerable populations, including women, low-income individuals, Black people, Indigenous people, people of color, people with disabilities, the LGBTQIA+ community, and every combination of these groups. Myths and prophesies—whether passed down through generations or manufactured on circuit boards—have real consequences.
Today, Cassandra and Sybil present conflicting characters. If we consider Sybil as the predecessor of current predictive technologies like artificial intelligence, she becomes a capricious yet unavoidable force in our lives. Cassandra, then, stands for every ignored or belittled harbinger. In Sybil’s Noon Shower of Stones, Georgieva activates both these archetypes through her use and critique of predictive algorithms. Of the lessons to be learned from the sad fates of Cassandra and Sybil, two stand out as particularly relevant now: gifts from powerful people almost always come with strings attached, and they lash out when they don’t get what they want. For better or worse, our fates now lie in the laps of politicians and capitalist oligarchs who often seem no less immature, spiteful, and self-serving than the gods on Mount Olympus. As mere mortals, we must be fiercely skeptical of anyone who claims to know what the future holds, or who promises eternal youth, beauty, riches, fame, or happiness.
Gery Georgieva: UWU Channel Radiance was on view February 1-9, 2020 at Cubitt, 8 Angel Mews, London N1 9HH.
Amelia Rina is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon, on the unceded land of the Clackamas and Cowlitz nations.