In my previous blog post talking about our project, I examined society’s relationship with AI, and how that is reflected in our collective’s immersive art project Laila. In this post, I will examine how our relationship with technology has shifted with the arrival of Covid-19 — how we’ve realized it’s both an entity, and a new type of environment.

As a recap, Ekho Collective, of which I’m part, is a collective of interdisciplinary technologists, designers and artists. We are completing our current immersive art project Laila with the Finnish National Opera and Ballet, to be presented in August 2020.

Two pictures featuring the dome concept sketch and dome structures being built
Laila the environment/entity: from dome concept to implementation.

A lot has happened since my last post in December 2019. The modern world has faced its worst pandemic yet, morphing people’s relationship with technology from where it was a mere half a year ago. Our work Laila is largely an exploration on humanity’s relationship with itself, as well as our relationship with technology. These relationships have undergone prodigious changes in the immediate past. As such, the pandemic has not only shifted my personal way of life and the ways of life of all members of our collective, but also our methods, as well as our visions of what Laila can be.

Methods: Working together digitally

Initially, the most noticeable shift was in our methods of working. With the adaptation of social distancing, we have changed our congregation venues. Due to the size of our collaborative team, which includes our collective (seven + visiting artist Tuomas Norvio), as well as all collaborating parties (composer Esa-Pekka Salonen, dramaturg3 Paula Vesala, and opera personnel such as set, sound, and lighting designers), we had to be careful who could meet up, and what size those meetings could be.

For safety’s sake, we shifted certain meetings from live to video calls, as many others have done during the course of 2020. For comparison, here are two photos from our process, pre and post Covid-19:

Two pictures featuring two women looking at the Laila timeline and one woman looking at drawn prototype
On the left: workshopping together live, in September 2019. On the right: Saara-Henriikka demonstrating a prototype via video call, in April 2020.

Along with a shift in methods, came a shift in our perspectives. While less obvious at first, this shift of using technology as a venue for meeting up resulted in a crystallization of our visions and intentions with Laila.

Laila as a technological entity

While working on our project with our new digital methods, we began more critically examining the relationship we previously had with technology, and how it had changed with the arrival of Covid-19. Had we previously video called a friend, just to have a silent, digital presence with us while we cooked dinner? Not that we remembered.

We realized that since physical contact had become sparse, digital contact was becoming more natural, replacing its physical counterpart. While we lacked the things that usually come with physical human contact — body heat, the sound of their breathing (generally erased by video call sound filtering algorithms), and even their smell — we could still feel a person’s presence through digital means.

This was an interesting thought experiment: if we could feel a human’s digital presence, or one might even say, a digital human’s presence, where do we draw the line with digital presences of other kind? Can a computer have a presence? What about an AI? Can technology be thought of as having its own entity?

Of course, we must recognize, that AIs in their current state of the art do not constitute a presence on the level of that of a human. For one, they are not thinking, feeling beings. Secondly, the term presence in itself implies some type of presence of mind — a thing modern AIs do not have. However, the thought experiment is interesting: can we nonetheless find a sense of comfort, belonging, or even camaraderie with technological entities? Could Laila be such an entity for its visitors? 

Through its technological materiality, Laila can be examined as an independent performer, and thus, an entity. By technological materiality I mean that Laila is made up of a network of technologies and the people existing within those networks: combinations of different technologies and people create new ways of sensing, doing, experiencing and thinking. They are a part of social conventions, and create new ones.

As a collective we are interested in making these conventions visible and experienceable. We want to make technology more inclusive: through art, we aim to provide spaces where visitors interact with technology, and are able to ponder on its meaning to themselves and to the future.

Laila as a new type of collaborative environment

While building Laila, it has become clear to us that we are not only building an entity that visitors can interact with, but also an entirely new type of environment. Like video calls can be thought of as a new type of digital venue for collaboration, so can Laila.

Our motion designer and visual artist Olli Kilpi talked about the meaning of Laila as an environment: “An interesting thing about this project is that since this is a new field of design, there are no existing rules. I’ve realised that in a 360 setting, the traditional rules of composition that exist on a flat page do not apply. This environment is more natural, like walking in nature — it is not a snapshot of an environment, or an environment viewed through a certain lens, but rather an environment in and of itself.”

Three pictures with empty room and projections on screen, dome with two people working on the floor and three people inside the dome with colorful projections
Building Laila’s environment: from projecting on a flat surface, to applying a canvas to our dome, to mapping our projections inside the dome.

In Laila, Ekho Collective’s objective is to bring art and technology together in new and unexpected ways. We aim to examine the union of art and technology with a curious, yet critical approach. We believe that the relationship between a person and a machine is a complex system where both parties affect each other and incite new processes within the other. The way we examine this in Laila is providing an environment within which visitors can become part of and immerse themselves within such a complex system.

In Laila, we make visible what we have come to realize is the duality of technology in our current times: it can be both an entity to interact with, as well as a new environment to exist and collaborate together within.