AICON: Showcasing a ‘radicareful’ alternative system


A living doc started by Moniek Buijzen*

In the warmth of late summer two years ago, on a city café’s terrace, we sowed the first seed of AICON. Inspired and nurtured by a rapidly growing group of imaginative thinkers, a process of collective creativity and introspection soon germinated. The goal was as clear as it was ambitious: to explore together the complex relationship between humans, society, and artificial intelligence. A transdisciplinary project in which artists, citizens, engineers, and scientists examine the conditions for human and society-friendly AI to create social impact.

explore — experiment — engage

Like a natural ecosystem, the AICON collective has evolved and expanded organically. Ideas and goals have shifted, more and more partners have joined, and perspectives have become more diverse. What once started as a demand for an artistic intervention has grown into something beyond our imagination. A movement with a broader perspective, but always with the same methodology. AICON takes partners into an alternative way of working together. One that many of us are not used to in the institutions, organizations, and systems in which we work. One that all of us need to embrace in the complex context of contemporary life.

Just as a gardener invests in the soil to promote fertility and independent growth, AICON invests in an open and safe space for hyperdiverse collaborations at the intersection of art and science. An in-between space where egos, agendas and comfort zones are no longer nurtured. Where an eye is kept open to all ideas and angles. Where differences are embraced, and inequality rejected. In this space, the germinating seed has been able to expand into a natural ecosystem in which each partner plays an essential role. We have found that the soil is thirsty, the partners involved seem hungry for alternatives; and the AICON way kindles an unconventional way of collaborating, of how to relate to each other.

making all minds matter

In this fertile soil, cultural creations sprang up — the mushrooms, fruits, and flowers of our alternative system. A series of citizen self-portraits, culminating in the living artwork ‘Portraits of the City’ in collaboration with AI. Podcasts by the Ronnies on South, Medium blogs by established and emerging artists, scholars and engineers, and installations in Theater de Doelen, the Metaverse on Muse, the Erasmus University campus, and coming winter in Rotterdam City Hall. Magnificent and ephemeral, AICON’s creations reflect the cyclical essence of nature, with a continuous evolution that constantly produces new perspectives. The process of co-creation is paramount and the belief in continuous synergy and (r)evolution is the driving force.

But this seemingly natural organic evolution is not without its challenges. Two fundamental barriers have emerged — both embedded in established systems. The first is the need for participants to challenge themselves, to step out of their comfort zone, to break free from everyone’s inner system of familiar beliefs and habits. Breaking free from our ‘inner system’, especially letting go of our own agendas and goals, is uncomfortable and sometimes frightening, but leads to a new collective strength. The second challenge is the ‘outer system’, the struggle against entrenched systems and rigid thought patterns that have taken root in our society. Yes, even in the environments in which our AICON system is embedded, including the systems of art and culture, science, and social policy. In order to protect our fragile cooperation, we must constantly question what is taken for granted. For example, we resist the demand for an end-product and a single ‘star’ actor, and we fight against deeply rooted assumptions of inequality and status differences between partners.

radicareful warriors

Important lessons were learned. The AICON guides, Team Kallenbach, are indispensable process monitors. In the AICON ecosystem, they operate like a mycorrhizal mycelium, a network of tiny fungal threads that form a partnership with plant roots, helping plants absorb and exchange nutrients and information, thus improving the overall health and growth of plants in the ecosystem. Unyielding and sensitive at the same time, Team Kallenbach has created a healthy soil, the safe space in-between, recognizing that staying there requires constant effort.

The challenge is to keep that space safe, alive, and dynamic, so that it does not become a stuck system, suffocating in its own success. With their ‘radicareful’ system-based approach, Team Kallenbach consistently curates the processes and methodology, delivering art installations, creative interventions, workshops, seminars, and partnerships that seamlessly fit in their direct environment, the local system. Arising from the reciprocal relationship between residents, scholars and artists, the artworks are both the result and part of their environment. By bringing the partners together, by facilitating and encouraging open interaction, and by continuing to question what is taken for granted, they enable the various systems to fit better together.

systems — synergy — symbiosis

Fortunately, AICON’s approach is not unique. Our equal systems approach is part of a global movement, a dense network of initiatives that share values and demonstrate that things can and should be done differently. The transition from the Anthropocene to the Symbiocene — coined by the Australian eco-philosopher Glenn Albrecht — is characterized by equality, reciprocity, and ecological awareness. In science, too, developments such as open science, team science, and citizen science represent a movement towards transparency, diversity, inclusivity, emancipation, and more equal collaboration.

The system-challenging change often sought by small-scale initiatives can be described as ‘radicareful’ rather than radical, indicating a soft power that explores alternatives to established systems that are more inclusive of people, environment, and nature. In science, this kind of experiment is called ‘proof of principle’ or ‘proof of concept’ — an attempt to demonstrate on a small scale that a mechanism can and might work in the real world. Such proof stimulates further testing and development of concepts. AICON is unique within our own established systems of art and science, but the concept is universal. Every established system, every established order should have its own AICON testing ground, a demonstration that things can be different. There is no failure, it is about the process, to keep exploring, to show that there are possibilities for alternative and more inclusive systems.

AICON remains a movement of evolution, collaboration, communication, and change. It is proof that big changes can start with small actions, and that people can work together harmoniously and strive toward integrating a technological innovation like AI into society in a responsible and inclusive way. Our evolution is just beginning, and with every small step our world becomes richer in diversity, understanding, and empathy. It should be possible if we, as a system, as a society, want it to be.

*Moniek Buijzen is Erasmus University Professor of communication and change, focusing on a humane integration of AI in society. This text was co-created with Team Kallenbach, Deepl, and ChatGPT, and inspired by all the partners of the AICON collective, as well as the eco-works of Glenn Albrecht, Merlin Sheldrake, and Yasmine Ostendorf-Rodríguez.