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This weekend in Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian Institution is opening a monumental exhibition in celebration of its 175th anniversary. Entitled “Futures,” the show will be held at the Arts and Industries Building (AIB) through July 2022, marking an anticipated reopening for the building, which has been closed for two decades for an extensive renovation.
Anchoring the futuristic presentation is a two-story emotional AI sculpture commissioned by Amazon Web Services (AWS) entitled me + you by Suchi Reddy, the award-winning artist, architect, and designer behind Reddymade. Imagined by Leila Nouri from AWS and curated by the New Museum’s deputy director, Isolde Brielmaier, me + you engages with the public to visually translate our collective future, based on what the audience whispers into its portals. Attendees are encouraged to activate me + you by speaking their future vision into one of its nine designated points, which will reflect the meaning, tone, and sentiment through color and light.
Ahead of its opening, Whitewall spoke with Reddy and Brielmaier about creating me + you over the past two years, the power of voice today, and the significance of collective thought.
WHITEWALL: Isolde, you worked with Amazon to curate a project with an artist who could utilize AI or AWS technology. Why was Suchi selected?
ISOLDE BRIELMAIER: The goal was to find an artist that could, number one, work with technology. It wasn’t a requirement that they work with AWS technology, but they wanted an artist that was versed or fluent in AI. Suchi is that, and also able to engage in specific AWS technology. More than that, they were very interested in the human elements. They wanted an artist that could help translate this technology and bring it down to earth in a way that would allow broad audiences to engage with it. I set forth Suchi, and she was unanimous in the room. She understood that this isn’t just about spotlighting or showcasing the technology but integrating it in a meaningful and authentic way and invites people to the table—and that’s precisely what her work does.
The other piece to note is that we obviously hadn’t predicted a pandemic. Black lives have always mattered, and the issues that we’re dealing with, with racial justice, have always been there, but they were highly amplified over the last year. When you think about that, the polarization, the U.S. election, and others around the world, this only made Suchi’s work more significant and critical—not just for those of us working on the project, but for everyone around us. The work, for me, is timeless. How it’s evolved over this last year, and how it’s persisting significance, speaks to that.
WW: How did it feel to create this project with all women of color?
IB: It’s hugely significant. I have found in my work experience that women are very good at collaborating. The fact that we are also such diverse women working at the intersection of technology and art, we work so well together. It’s incredibly inspiring, but there’s also something significant about it right now. I’m generally a person who gets comfortable with discomfort, but it’s been … comfortable. There was something comfortable in this last year about our weekly Zoom, texts, and hopping on the phone that I really needed. To have gone through what we have all gone through, and to have done what we have done, and to have camaraderie and a level of ease and comfort, has been meaningful and impactful.
WW: Suchi, can you explain how this sculpture works?
SUCHI REDDY: My idea is to not have it be a technological sculpture—where there’s a screen that interacts with the audience—but to be an emotional connection with technology. It was important to me that this was not what one might think of as a tech sculpture. This should be a physical and emotional experience. I wanted people to do something that was extremely natural, which was to speak to something. This idea of speaking into the oracle, or having the oracle collect all of our visions, was in the back of my head. But it was really this idea of having individual responsibility in our collective agency. We as individuals, and our self-awareness, determine what kind of future we have together. It’s interesting that when I ask someone to give me one word about their future, they think. It’s that pause that’s the most important part of the sculpture. It’s causing you to stop and think about it. That’s the crux of the piece.
WW: What do you hope the installation provides for the community and its individuals?
SR: I’m hoping we can give voice to our voices, but also our voices tempered with our awareness. We tend to use technology without even thinking about it. It’s this idea of a layer of awareness regarding our interaction with technology, because if we are really going to co-evolve with this force, which I think we will, we need to know how much of our humanness and our wisdom rules. That’s the most important thing that I want to bring out.
When the pandemic hit, and we started thinking about it, the future was the only thing that any of us could think about. To really refine these ideas through that lens, it became very clear that there wasn’t much I wanted to change. It was what I wanted it to be, which was a voice for all of us—even those that can’t be heard.
It was important to make the mandala at different heights, for instance, so that someone in a wheelchair could access it. If you’re speech impaired, there’s a station where you can actually type it. We even conceived a digital companion to the physical sculpture before the pandemic, so we also have a website that anyone can interact with to share their ideas and know what the rest of the world is feeling, and to know that the way that they’re feeling is influencing everyone around them.
IB: Suchi said something that’s really important, and that’s the power of voice. This is a public institution, free and open to the public, and everybody has been extended a seat at the table. This is Suchi’s ethos—who she is as a person and as an artist in her overarching practice. Everybody’s voice matters. This notion of “I see you” and “You are valued” is incredibly important—generally, but more specifically in this exact moment. Our voice is powerful. It’s one of the only tools we have to signify our existence, our presence, and to call out what we think and feel. When you think about the element of voice, it is significant on so many levels, and that’s integral to the work. me + you cannot exist without people. It necessitates people’s very existence and engagement to function, to be the very work that Suchi has envisioned.
WW: What would you say your future looks like if you were to speak into a microphone today?
SR: “Astounding.” Things are always amazing me—with their newness, with the things I didn’t expect, with the surprise of what the universe brings to your door.
IB: There’s the usual “hopeful,” but for some reason “resilient” comes to mind. We have been through hell and back in so many ways, and it feels like we are still here.