The Breakthroughs in Storytelling Awards, Summit and Symposium honor the most innovative approaches to narrative from the past year.

The Breakthroughs in Storytelling Awards, Summit and Symposium honor the most innovative approaches to narrative from the past year.

Unlearning Language

Lauren Lee McCarthy and Kyle McDonald
AI, installation, performance
United States / Japan
December 2022

“Is it possible to find new understandings of language, undetectable to algorithms? In this project we use performance and interactive tactics to explore that possibility, particularly in a time of pervasive AI surveillance.” - Lauren Lee McCarthy

Unlearning Language is an interactive installation and performance project created by the artists Lauren Lee McCarthy and Kyle McDonald in collaboration with InterLab at the Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media in Yamaguchi, Japan. The project aims to provoke new understandings of language that are undetectable to algorithms. It consists of two parts: an interactive installation for up to eight people, and an interactive opening performance for an audience.

The opening performance provides a backstory for the installation, prompting the audience to interact with one another and with the performers. In the installation, participants are guided by an AI that aims to train humans to be less machine-like. The AI intervenes with light, sound, and vibration as the participants communicate, and the group must work together to find new ways to communicate that are undetectable to an algorithm. Through playful experimentation, the participants reveal their most human qualities, distinguishing themselves from machines. The desire to become less machine-like may seem at odds with the underlying use of AI, but it is only through participating in this immersive world that we can discover if the aspiration of unlearning has been met.

Lauren Lee McCarthy is an artist examining social relationships in the midst of surveillance, automation and algorithmic living. She has received grants and residencies from Creative Capital, United States Artists, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Sundance New Frontier, Eyebeam, Pioneer Works, Autodesk and Ars Electronica. Her work Someone was awarded the Ars Electronica Golden Nica and the Japan Media Arts Social Impact Award, and her work Lauren was awarded the IDFA DocLab Award for Immersive Non-Fiction. Lauren's work has been exhibited internationally at such places as the Barbican Centre in London, Fotomuseum Winterthur and Haus der elektronischen Künste in Switzerland, the Onassis Cultural Center in New York, IDFA DocLab in Amsterdam, Science Gallery Dublin, the Seoul Museum of Art, the Japan Media Arts Festival and SIGGRAPH. Lauren is also the creator of p5.js, an open-source art and education platform that prioritizes access and diversity in learning to code, with over 10 million users. She expanded on this work in her role from 2015–21 on the Board of Directors for the Processing Foundation, whose mission is to serve those who have historically not had access to the fields of technology, code, and art in learning software and visual literacy. She holds an MFA from the University of California, Los Angeles and is a professor at UCLA Design Media Arts.

Kyle McDonald is an artist working with code. He contributes to open source arts-engineering toolkits like openFrameworks and builds tools that allow artists to use new algorithms in creative ways. He creatively subverts networked communication and computation, explores glitch and systemic bias, and extends these concepts to the reversal of everything from identity to relationships. He crafts interactive installations, sneaky interventions, playful websites, workshops and toolkits for other artists working with code. He likes to explore the possibilities of new technologies—working with machine learning, computer vision and social and surveillance tech to understand how they affect society, to misuse them and to build alternative futures. Previously an adjunct professor at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program and a member of the now-defunct Free Art and Technology Lab, he has also been artist-in-residence at the Frank-Ratchye Studio for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University and at the Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media. His work has been commissioned and shown around the world, including at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the NTT InterCommunication Center in Tokyo, Ars Electronica in Austria and Eyebeam in Brooklyn. His other projects from 2022 include Amends, a series of sculptures designed to mitigate emissions from Ethereum NFT marketplaces, and Crypto Therapy, a group therapy session for people working through their feelings of confusion, excitement, frustration and financial anxiety due to the complex phenomenon of cryptocurrencies and NFTs.