AI gardening at Venice Biennale 2019

Gardens are always a wager on the future. You plant a seed in the expectation that the weather, the seasons, the earth and the plant will behave more or less predictably, while also predicting some level of unpredictability. A garden is also a utopian image of a perfected future, a recovered Eden. In an increasingly unpredictable environment, we might consider the use of technological devices as our crystalline future predictors. German artist Hito Steyerl’s installation at the Venice Biennale, This is the future, an extension of her earlier Power Plants project, gently mocks such naivety.

A women prisoner, Heja, is thwarted in her attempt to germinate seeds on chewed up love letters, so she hides her garden in the future – so the film begins to unfold, layered as one of the unfurling flowers on smaller screens. These flowers are the predictions made by AI, unreliable future ghosts with even less reliable properties: ‘if you use the extract it will poison autocrats’ or make the brain ‘unsusceptible for austerity and hate speech propaganda’. Magical thinking in the bland voice of a machine.

Images of a blurred and flooded Venice (the installation’s walkways suggest a pavement raised above flooding) are interrupted by a dissolving female body, or a teeming Tokyo. Grime artist Kojey Radical speaks about photosynthesis and our reliance on it, while the garden is sought in the urban sprawl. Heja tells us: ‘I am looking for it in the many colourful places the future looked like in the 20th century.’ But since in this future ‘wealth trickled down, power comes from Fukushima and technology is rational’, success seems unlikely.

As Heja concludes finally, ‘None of this will ever happen. I will never enter the future to look for my garden, because it is already here.’

For all the gaudy efflorescence of the simulated garden, the installation returns us to the living moment, and to living in uncertainty, ‘without yours, without us, with doubt’, with seeds on chewed up paper, nurtured in secret.