Cachito Valdés, next to two of his art installations. Salvador Salas
Machines watch over us at the Thyssen

Machines watch over us at the Thyssen

Robotics and AI take over the Sala Noble in a project by Cachito Valdés that challenges the visitor to reflect on a society controlled by algorithms

Regina Sotorrío


Friday, 14 July 2023, 14:53

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At first it seems like a playful proposal, an interactive space for fun. But after being in the room for just a short while, the atmosphere becomes unsettling, uncomfortable. Because that's how our relationship with machines is: they watch over us, for better and for worse.

Under 16th-century wooden coffered ceilings, a robotic system and an artificial intelligence installation question the onlooker about the most disturbing side of new technologies: their ability to know everything about us.

Cachito Valdés (born in 1986, Seville) merges art and cutting-edge devices at the Carmen Thyssen Museum to reflect on what has become known as 'the society of algorithms', a reality that, as he insists, is not the future: "This is our present."

"Ever since man realised that, by burning a stick, he could paint on a wall, technology has been applied to reflect our emotions"

Panopticon, on show until 3 September in the Sala Noble, is inspired by a prison structure taken from history that provided the guard with a perfect view of all the prisoners from a central tower, with them unaware of whether they were being observed or not. The first installation works on this idea, the one that gives the exhibition project its title: here the spectator is "the target", the person who is going to be somehow "invaded" by a machine that controls all his movements. Seventy robotic artifacts in the form of shiny panels are spread out across two facing walls and react to the visitor's footsteps, turning in the direction of their walk.

Sensors installed in the ceiling allow the visitor to be followed around the room and, depending on their pace and proximity to the panels, these can move, turn in and out, slow or fast.

"The viewer is watched and at the same time is the watcher," as they see other viewers cross in front of the panels, said Valdés. This action is accompanied at all times by the mechanical sound of the actual motors with which this installation has been created. The noise amplifies the sensation of being examined.

"The more time the viewer spends alongside the machine, the more terrifying it becomes: any movement is observed and followed," said Lourdes Moreno, artistic director at the Thyssen, recalling the 120th anniversary of the birth of George Orwell, the visionary of the 'Big Brother' concept - constant surveillance of the individual - in his novel 1984.

At the back of the room, Valdés shows another, more silent and discreet form of contemporary surveillance: data. The Mismatch is presented as a kind of capsule with a publicly viewable panel that reacts to whatever is happening behind in the more private space.

A voice says (in Spanish), "Hello, I'm Lucía, an artificial intelligence in charge of collecting data from facial features and expressions in order to generate an interpretation of them, projecting them in lights onto the screen on the other side". The joy, surprise or sadness shown on a face, their age and gender too, are translated into percentages that turn these constantly moving lights on and off.

Now, if the visitor does not want their data saved, Lucía immediately gives them the option to press a red button for instant deletion. It is part of the ethics of technology, "it's the right that we, the people, have: to decide if our data will be processed or not."

The Mismatch, developed with students from the University of Seville, reflects on the continuous collection of personal information to which we are subjected and "how we are part of that game".

With Panopticon, the Thyssen is opening its doors to 'science art' with the aim of connecting to a different audience, engaging more with current affairs. The museum's art collection focuses on art from the 19th century and up to the second half of the 20th:

"But we are a living institution that wants to keep in contact with reality," stated Moreno. As such, they are linking up with current creatives such as Cachito Valdés, who has spent a decade exploring this connection between art and technology. For Valdés this is the natural way to go.

"It has been so since the beginning of time. Ever since man realised that, by burning a stick, he could paint on a wall, technology has been applied to reflect our emotions," he said. He restricts himself to using the tools available in the here and now.

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