Dr Varvara Guljajeva is an artist and researcher. She holds the position of researcher and guest Associate Professor in Textile at the Estonian Academy of Arts (EKA) in Tallinn. Previously, she worked as Head of Interactive Experiences on the Bachelor study program in Design at ELISAVA Barcelona School of Design and Engineering (2019-2020). Varvara has been invited as a visiting researcher to XRL, Hong Kong City University; IAMAS, Ogaki, Japan; Liverpool John Moores University, UK; and Interface Cultures in the Linz University of Art and Design, Blekinge Institute of Technology, Karlshamn, Sweden. In 2018, she completed her PhD at EKA with the thesis titled, “From interaction to post-participation: the disappearing role of the active participant.”
As an artist she works together with Mar Canet forming the artist duo Varvara & Mar. Often the duo’s work is inspired by the information age. In their practice, they confront social changes and the impact of the technological era. In addition, Varvara & Mar are fascinated by artificial intelligence, kinetics, participation, and digital fabrication. The duo has been exhibiting in international shows since 2009 with works displayed at MAD, New York; FACT, Liverpool;Santa Monica, Barcelona; Onassis Cultural Centre, Athens; Ars Electronica museum, Linz; ZKM, Karlsruhe, and more. The duo has completed several commissions including Neuronal Landscapes (2018), Estonian History Museum; and Wishing Wall (2014), Google and the Barbican, London.
ENA—Participative Art Forms in a Time of Pandemic
During lockdown, humanity experienced a hunger for culture more than ever before: book sales shot up along with subscriptions to music and movie streaming platforms. Museums and galleries introduced 3D and video tours of exhibitions and conducted online artist talks and conferences. However, none of these formats offered audience participation. The question is how to facilitate audience participation and belonging to the creative process in a time of pandemic?
This paper introduces an art project ENA—a generative chatbot that talks to its audience. The project was created by artist duo Varvara & Mar and theatre director Roger Bernat during the first lockdown. ENA went live on 15th of May 2020 on the website of Teatre Lliure in Barcelona and talked to the participants non-stop for a month and a half. In lockdown when the only social window was a screen, ENA offered a participative theatre where only one person at a time could have a conversation with the chatbot while the rest followed the dialogue live.
Since the invention of the first bot, which was Eliza in 1966, scientists have been intrigued as to whether we would realise that on the other end was a machine. ENA is the next-generation bot that makes use of AI technology. It learns from large amounts of text feed and from conversations with humans. For the chatbot, language is the sequence of probabilities that are analysed when received—and recombined when sent back. ENA is unconscious and emotionless. Any dialogue with ENA will only make sense to the human taking part in the conversation and to the online audience at the time.
In the end, during times of social deficit, it is crucial to have art practices of an experimental and participative nature to break away from seeing the audience as a consumer of on-screen content alone. The month-long participative theatre opened up new avenues for thought and resulted in 900 pages of conversations between ENA and the audience, which we decided to bind into a book.