Imagine a horror film made just for you. The creator knows you intimately—how you speak, how you write, what you look like—and can use this to unsettle you. But that’s practically all the creator knows—just you, and the 50 scariest horror movies of all time. It doesn’t have access to the internet, it doesn’t know anyone else, and it doesn’t have a life of its own. At least, as far as you know. You created it.
Welcome to conceptual artist and photographer Kevin Abosch’s self-made nightmare. You may have heard of Abosch from his several blockchain-related projects. He’s drained his blood for blockchain-based art. He has tokenized himself, the idea of a yellow Lambo, and his priceless moments with renowned Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. Though Abosch’s work spans photographic portraits—featuring the likes of Malala, Yoko Ono, and some distinguished potatoes—and provocative installations in Paris and Reykjavík, he’s found himself filling the art-world role of “the blockchain guy.”
But Abosch is growing weary of using blockchain as a medium. “I’m definitely wrapping it up,” he told BREAKER. He’s not getting any new questions at the numerous “blockchain and art” panels he’s spoken on. (“If you can’t hold it, how does it have value?” is a frequent one.) So he’s turned instead to an equally buzzed about technology, deep learning and artificial intelligence, for his scariest project to date. At least, it’s scared him. No one else has watched it yet.
When BREAKER caught up with Abosch, he was tired. The day before, he’d appeared in an Apple-style presentation as the “innovation director” of smartphone company OnePlus, pacing the stage in a headset and a velvet jacket his kids had picked out for him, and the next day (today) he’d be heading to China, the start of a trip during which he’d speak to gallerists and museum curators about showing his blockchain-based art. “Another reason I’m so tired right now,” Abosch said, “is I’m being manipulated by my own AI.”
For the past several months, Abosch has been working on AIKA, an acronym for “Artificial Intelligence + Kevin Abosch.” People kept asking him whether he was afraid of AI’s worst-case scenarios, like those we’ve see depicted regularly in movies and shows like The Terminator, Westworld, and Ex Machina that make it easy to imagine the possible terrors of an AI-dominated future. Abosch got to thinking about how AI “might actually choose to instill fear, or scare people…what if it made a horror movie?”
AIKA spent months “watching” 50 of the top horror movies from around the world, including Ringu (the original Japanese version of The Ring) and The Exorcist. Deep learning algorithms would allow it to “understand” what made those movies frightening. Meanwhile, Abosch also granted the AI—which he calls his “collaborator” on the film—access to his emails, Skype calls, text messages, photos, and videos. This put him inside the feature-length film, titled AIKA, in ways so subtle and disquieting that it’s prompted Abosch to consider therapy.
“It’s been the most challenging and deeply disturbing artistic project of my life,” he said, his face reddening the more he spoke about the film. His nervous laughter reverberated around his studio, filled with little besides the big marble table where we sat, a bust covered in paper and the Sharpie-written phrase “I AM A COIN,” and crumpled up posters of blockchain addresses associated with his tokens for Priceless, the project he’d recently completed with Ai. “It’s clear AIKA doesn’t make the distinction between me as its collaborator, and the audience we are trying to scare.”
What does it mean to collaborate on a film with AI? In 2016, 20th Century Fox used IBM’s Watson to create a movie trailer for the AI horror thriller Morgan. Watson could determine if a scene included high action and whether the characters were exhibiting, say, fear, sadness, or tenderness. “Watson is the tool helping arrange the visuals,” said Zef Cota, a filmmaker in IBM’s research division, in a short video about the trailer’s creation. “But it still needs a human element.” Cota added that human touch. The trailer definitely reads as scary.
Then there’s this fun, sci-fi romp, also from 2016, starring Silicon Valley’s Thomas Middleditch. Called Sunspring, the nine-minute film includes ludicrous one-liners like, “I’m a little bit of a boy on the floor.” That’s because an AI called Benjamin (self-named) wrote the script, after being exposed to an impressive number of sci-fi flicks, including all the Star Wars movies, Men in Black movies, Matrix movies, Jurassic Park movies…you get the idea. Benjamin went on to make another film starring Middleditch, Zone Out, earlier this year.
Abosch found the idea of AI writing a script “too far-fetched…it’s just gibberish.” Instead, it served as a sort of storyboard, suggesting how to make an effectively scary film. “For instance, when this happens, create a glitch that looks like this,” Abosch described as one of AIKA’s “suggestions.” “At the same time, the sound should do this—and here is where you introduce a Japanese girl.”
The lead of the film is a Japanese woman. Her character is called Aika.
Abosch cast the film (with suggestions from AIKA), and he wrote what little there is of the script. But AIKA was largely responsible for the sounds and the visuals and provided input on editing and other effects. Abosch compared its process to the sorts of apps that can make a photograph look like a Leonardo da Vinci painting because it’s been fed both that photo and a bunch of da Vinci paintings. “AIKA uses that kind of logic,” said Abosch. “It has a sense of how things should look, and when I give it something it can then make changes to approximate what it thinks it should look like with respect to that which is scary.”
Abosch would not share any clips from AIKA, which he expects to be ready in a matter of weeks. But he did share this disturbing still that he claims AIKA, not he, sent to me over email. The image resembles his face if it were made of melting wax and placed under water.
All of Abosch’s work, he said, explores where he ends and his subjects or collaborators begin. Previously, he’s used blockchain to explore this, like by using his own blood to stamp out the contract addresses of various “IAMA Coin” tokens he created on the Ethereum blockchain, which people could purchase. When Abosch and Ai tokenized their “priceless” moments together—moments like walking down the street or accusing each other of having “big noses”—by connecting them to tokens with the ticker PRCLS, he mused about their merging through the project. “Where do I end and he begins?” Abosch asked.
When his collaborator was AI, and not Ai (interesting that both of Abosch’s most recent collaborators go by more or less the same name) or the Ethereum blockchain, the idea of breaking down barriers got “a little freakier.” Abosch created AIKA, but AIKA successfully scared him.
“It’s like fucking with my head…When I’m interacting with it, you know, there are some things that have happened, that I’m like, it’s trying to fuck with me.”