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Beyond Bias: AI Art and Social Justice

by Georgina Maddox

Emami Art hosts the solo exhibition, "EXO-Stential - AI Musings on the Posthuman", by Harshit Agrawal, curated by Myna Mukherjee. We also take a brief look at the AI (Artificial Intelligence) trends, both locally and globally, to see what happens when artists use technology to confront inequality.

Masked Reality

In the gallery a TV screen is running an interactive artwork in a loop. It transforms an audience face standing in front to those of a Kathakali dancer and a Theyyam dancer’s face simultaneously. In this stimulating transformation created by AI artist, Harshit Agrawal, we are led to wonder what it means when one identity merges with another, donning the divine characters; importantly, though both are Malyali dance formats, Kathakali is traditionally an upper-caste identity while the other, Theyyam, is a Dalit identity. By appropriating these personas, the viewer gets a chance to step into the shoes of the performer with each frame in the virtual world. Theyyam is a Dalit dance and each legendary story of it is quite grim. Theyyam originated from Kaliyattam and historically, ‘indigenous tribal communities’ were handed over the responsibility to perform Theyyam.

Harshit Agrawal

Mythology has it that a righteous tribal person (usually ‘Dalits’) stands up for his/her rights, and is killed for their insolence. Their spirit comes ‘alive’ every time his or her ‘Theyyam’ is performed. The performer is said to take on a character that is both powerful and divine yet vulnerable and human. The traditional themes of Kathakalī are folk stories, religious legends and spiritual ideas from the Hindu epics and the Puranas. The vocal performance has traditionally been performed in Sanskritized Malayalam, but in modern times, Kathakali has also been performed in other languages with women performers and by troupes that belong to different castes, classes and genders, and even a few international performers from the west. These two dances from Kerala are path-breaking and have been adopted as a metaphor for change, in paintings, photography, performances and videography.

“The work uses AI facial recognition technology that is typically employed for profiling and identifying associated probabilities of criminal possibility, often leading to AI determined in humane surveillance. Agrawal uses the same underlying technology to create a conceptual art piece that instead builds empathy and reflection towards deep-rooted social inequalities in the Indian tradition,” observes curator, cultural producer and Director, Engendered, Myna Mukherjee, describing one of the artworks that is part of Harshit Agrawal’s solo exhibition.

Myna Mukherjee

Art is often visionary which is why what artists and the art world talk of often sounds a little ahead of its time. The latest in the line-up after the NFT craze that has gripped the art world is the use and evocation of Artificial Intelligence (or as it is often referred to by its acronym, AI) that is the new buzz word among artists across the globe. Harshit Agrawal is one of the pioneering names in AI working with AI along with other artists like Raghava KK.

“Can I use this body of work to offer alternate narratives and immersive embodiments of deep-rooted sociological divides, of seemingly universal perceptions of themes like gender, of our sense of authorship and agency - through and with AI? I find this space of engagement with the machine fascinating to work with,” says Agrawal.

Since inception, Harshit’s work with AI has engaged with contemplations around social, cultural and ethical issues, with a unique ability to work with large amounts of data and act as a conduit to explore internal biases at both individual and societal levels. Further, he has consistently used a rootedness in the ‘Indian’; particularly, to question the absolutist Eurocentric approach that has dominated the development of AI, which does not take into account the plurality of humanity in relation to issues of race, gender and culture.

Still Life 1

Still Life 2

“A new form of life is emerging. We are building a ‘God’, something that transcends humankind. Artificial Intelligence is rapidly reshaping the world. It’s going to be everywhere all the time. It’s going to hear everything. It’s going to be connected to every single camera on the planet. A.I is going to be the most important technology in the history of the planet,” says curator Mukherjee. If this sounds a little bit like a script from a science fiction film, rest assured it is not. Mukherjee’s curatorial premise looks into the future around AI and this solo exhibition featuring Agrawal’s work is just the tip of the iceberg.

Both Mukherjee and Agrawal point out that artificial intelligence has become ubiquitous in the healthcare and patient care industry, financial and loan markets, policing and criminal justice system, and of course the gaming and entertainment world. Artificial intelligence has sparked more discussions about the interplay between human beings and machines than perhaps any previous technological development. In fact, there’s no telling how profound the impact of artificial intelligence on social justice frameworks could be; there is untold potential at the intersection of social work and AI. For this reason, this is one of the most important conversations of our time.

The anatomy lesson of Dr Algorithm All

Universal 1

Universal 2

Besides the interactive video work of the Kathakali and Theyyam dancer, the show will also feature a data wall that will help us understand social justice and perception framework in machine intelligence and throw in questions that relate to some hidden biases. Mukherjee tells us about an experiment that 64/1 (Karthik Kalyanaraman and Raghava KK) and Agrawal did with inputting a 1000-image data set that was an accumulation of female, male and other non-binary genders. “All sorts of people were asked to draw gender diagrams, stick figures and other diagrammatic forms that were then fed into the AI programme and it is so interesting that its response to the gender diagrams were coded as ‘female’ and ‘non-female’. It came-up with a gender spectrum, a set of images that were laid out in concentric circles. It borrows from Tantric Philosophy, and mythology,” says Mukherjee, excited that this particular work, which she facilitated as collaboration between the two artists and commissioned by Engendered, has made it to the Lumen Shortlist. In fact, Agrawal’s work has been nominated twice for the top tech art prize.

“As a curator what strikes me most about Harshit’s work is that it consciously engages with this inevitable techno-centric reality we live in, rather than being simply sucked into it. AI’s usage in art elevates it from being a tool of utility and function to being a conspirator in the artist’s imagination, and the pursuit of aesthetic ideas. It allows us to witness how humans can work with machines to enhance their creativity, rather than allow their creativity to be replaced by machinic labour,” says Mukherjee.

Flowers Zoom out

We are left to ponder while looking at Harshit’s works how AI can ‘help’ us to stay sensitive to the relations of power that exist in the real global world. “I am often struck as to how can we use it creatively in collaboration with marginal cultures towards representation and avoid appropriation? Can we use AI to transcend the limitations of gender? These are fascinating lines of inquiry within the show that we are excited to explore,” says Harshit who works extensively with AI algorithms and datasets, often creating them as an essential part of his practice. “I find this space of engagement with the machine fascinating to work with,” the artist concludes.

Artificial Intelligence today is a reality and it may uncover uncomfortable, yet terribly relevant, issues it confronts in today’s world. We await with our eyes, ears and all other senses open.

Other voices:

Joy Buolamwini is a leading activist for algorithmic justice and a poet of code who uses art and research to illuminate the social implications of AI.

Sougwen Chung is a multidisciplinary artist who uses marks to explore communication between people and machines.

Wayne McGregor is an acclaimed British choreographer using AI to explore the possibility of movement.

Delhi-based, Bengal-born artist, Shovin Bhattacharjee, plans to work and explore AI in his paintings that will discover a nuanced approach towards technology and human endeavour.

(All images are courtesy of the gallery Emami Art and the artist, Harshit Agrawal.)


Georgina Maddox is an independent critic-curator with almost two decades of experience in the field of Indian art and culture. She was assistant editor at India Today’s Mail Today and senior arts writer for the Indian Express and the Times of India. She is currently working in the media as an independent critic for various publications and has published articles in Open Magazine, India Today, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and also in Elle Magazine, The Hindu and Business Line, Sunday Magazine BLINK, TAKE on Art, Time Out, and online with US based E-magazine, Studio International, STIR world and MASH Mag.

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