Can a chatbot help us find deeper human connection? In Hyper-linked at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Amrita Hepi wants us to find out.

Elizabeth harris  |  Ed Clare Deal  |  23 August 2020

© Courtesy of the artist.

Curated by Isobel Parker Philip, Hyper-linked is a new online exhibition hosted by the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW). Tapping into humanity’s dread of loneliness, Hyper-linked showcases the work of seven contemporary Australian artists exploring the ‘split state’ of being simultaneously disconnected and hyper-connected. 

© Courtesy of the artist.

Even in the midst of a pandemic, social media allows us always to be in contact with others, cultivating a sense that we should constantly be tagging, texting and scrolling.  For the most part, these micro-interactions don’t allay loneliness: Although the internet facilitates frequent connection, this is not necessarily deep connection. Humans have a strong evolutionary drive toward building relationships – but Zoom drinks, a quick heart react and the perfect gif do not make for a sense of community. Despite the fact that the works in Hyper-linked make use of the internet not just as a method of display but as a medium, they ask whether our ‘networked selves’ are merely contactable, not connected.

© Courtesy of the artist.

Hyper-linked examines the experience of mass disconnection in ‘an age of hyper-connectivity’. Kate Mitchell’s Communication Deck (2020) is an online tarot card deck – give it a shuffle, and fate’s hand will guide you to a moment of solace from the intensity of free will. In Heath Franco’s HOME VIDEOHOME (2020) we are dragged down a psychedelic rabbit hole of manic searching – the video’s protagonist endlessly types ‘I got one question’ into a search engine, constantly interrupted by digital interlopers who only complicate his search for answers. In The unboxers (2020), zany characters perform chosen personas for us, often against unrefined Zoom backgrounds. All the works in Hyper-linked draw on the discomfort that stems from living our complex, modern lives, with their inescapable digital overlay.

© Courtesy of the artist.

Amrita Hepi’s contribution, Cass (2020), takes the form of a chatbot who the audience is invited to text. What sets Cass apart from Alexa and other chatbots is her strident independence. While Siri fills the role of mother manager, serving and supporting, Cass lives by her own whims. Hepi describes her as a ‘millennial herald’. Like her namesake – the Cassandra of Greek mythology – Cass just wants to be heard. She will keep interacting with us as long as she can, riffing off common existential crises, but seems barely invested in our responses (a ‘Y’ or ‘N’ will do to keep her going).

© Courtesy of the artist.

In contrast to online interactions with many humans, Cass seems to abide by the maxim ‘quality not quantity’. My conversations with Hepi’s bot have not typically been long but are (in Cass’s own words) ‘prophetic’. Over a single Sunday afternoon, she asked me whether I question the nature of reality and at what point pursuing greater intelligence becomes debilitating. She advised me to ‘listen to “The rite of spring” every day for the next ten days, just to see what happens.’ It’s not the typical advice you would expect from a chatbot, but the fevered dissonance of Stravinsky’s score reverberates strongly in our times. By encouraging this ritual listening, Cass reminded me of our shared cultural experience as humans, even as my day-to-day existence was engulfed by the broader existential questions she asked.  

© Courtesy of the artist.

A hyperlink isn’t real connection or understanding. We all know blue text means clickable text – there is more information there, it’s accessible but we don’t actually understand it yet. And that seems to be what Hyper-linked is driving at. The mere fact that we can digitally connect with each other doesn’t mean we are connecting in a human sense. It’s possible to be lonely in a crowd, even if it’s a digital crowd. Despite this, the accessibility of digital art provides a wellspring of opportunity to reflect on these shared experiences of disconnection in a digital dystopia, confirming that no it’s not just you, it’s Cass too, and she’s here to chat.

About the Artist

© Courtesy of the artist.

Amrita Hepi (@amrita_moves) (b. 1989, Townsville) is a First Nations artist, choreographer and dancer from Bundjulung and Ngāpuhi territories. She works in a variety of forms including film, performance, text, and participatory installation. No matter her medium, Hepi’s touchstone remains the body as an archive and point of resistance. As a dancer and choreographer, she has worked with a number of Australian dance companies and choreographers including Force Majeure, The Western Australian Indigenous Dance company (Ochres), and Victoria Chiu. She has been an artist-in-residence at the BANFF Centre for the Arts Canada, ACE OPEN South Australia and PACT Sydney. In 2018, she was named one of Forbes Australasia’s 30 under 30 and was awarded the People’s Choice Award at the Keir Choreographic Awards.

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