‘It’s so weird to hear a computer laugh’ - Dutch artist Matthias Oostrik brings AI art to Belfast

Sophie Clarke speaks to Matthias Oostrik about his tech-art installation Smile AI, one of the stars of this month’s Belfast Photo Festival

Installation Image of SMILE AI by Matthias Oostrik
Matthias Oostrik's installation Smile AI comes to Belfast this week

THE audience often becomes a crucial part of contemporary artist Matthias Oostrik’s work, and his new work Smile AI is no exception.

An interactive tech-art installation, Smile AI immerses viewers into a dystopian future where reality is refracted through the lens of artificial intelligence’s statistical interpretations.

Under the theme ‘Oops! We Automated Bulls**t’ the work transforms portraits of its visitors into flawless, super-persuasive replicas, eerily smiling back at them.

It’s very much the sort of creation that would not look out of place in an episode of Black Mirror.

“Weirdly enough I’ve never seen it but I’m planning to do so,” says Matthias of the apocalyptic sci-fi series. You should see if they’ll use in the next series I suggest. “Hey, they can always call me,” he laughs.

Described as an artist working at the intersection of digital art, installation art, film and architecture, Matthias’s work explores the relationship between individuals and their environment.

“The one thing in my work that’s a given is the interaction, it always responds to the presence of people,” he explains.

The installation looks at the audience and tries to make sense of us weird people

—  Matthias Oostrik

“Just by being there you become part of the artwork, you don’t have to wear or touch anything to be part of it - just being present is enough.

“Before I was always trying to create an interaction between my audience and the art but more recently, I’ve been looking to see if I can actually create an interaction between audience members themselves.

“Brian Reffin Smith, a computer artist from a while back, said the best interactive art always makes you look at the participants, so in the end my audience is what’s driving me.”

The installation is made up of 48 screens, arranged as a spherical machine which is approximately two metres wide; cameras protruding from the interior completes the tech-noir aesthetic, with an intricate web of wires and glowing hardware.

“The installation looks at the audience and tries to make sense of us weird people,” Matthias says.

“Coming from an AI standpoint, in short I wanted to make an AI that laughs at us, that thinks we’re kind of funny and tries to mimic us.

“And it does that by capturing our portrait and then transforming it into a laughing face and because it’s your own portrait that’s laughing it feels a bit weird because it’s you but at the same time it’s not.”

Matthias recalls always having a fascination with attempting to combine laughter and technology.

I have a lot of fun creating these weird pieces that shouldn’t be able to exist

—  Matthias Oostrik

“It was always a sort of hobby of mine – each time a new piece of technology came out, I always tried to get a laughing sound out of them.

“It’s so weird to hear a computer laugh, it doesn’t make any sense, and, in the end, it makes me laugh. I have a lot of fun creating these weird pieces that shouldn’t be able to exist.”

Matthias’s work will be shown as part of the 10th annual Belfast Photo Festival which will explore the theme of divergence and how contemporary photographers and artists are interpreting the climate emergency, rapid digitalisation and, of course, the ethical questions surrounding AI.

“What I hope is that when people see the computer laughing it will be infectious and they will also start to laugh,” says Matthias.

“This AI stuff is scary and it’s out there, but we also shouldn’t take it too seriously at the same time.”

The festival will host a variety of international artists including Ireland’s own award-winning artist Richard Mosse who will debut his immersive 74-minute film Broken Spectre, which highlights the devastation in the Amazon rainforest.

Palestinian-American photographer Adam Rouhana will be awarded the annual Spotlight Award for his project Before Freedom. And Polish artists Barbara Caillot and Aleksandra Karkowska will exhibit their work Our Streets are Full of White Bears on the lawn at City Hall.

Artist Matthias Oostrik
Artist Matthias Oostrik

Riddel’s Warehouse, a remarkable example of 19th century industrial Belfast, situated on Anne Street will host Smile AI, which will run from June 7-23.

“It’ll be fun,” says Matthias when asked why people should come and see the installation.

“A lot of my work is trying to demystify technology, but I don’t make it for technology lovers - I make it for a general audience.

“So even if you’re not interested in technology at all, I still think it’s a very interesting experience to have your own portrait smiling back at you in a very creepy way.”