Bang & Lee: The Hearing on AI Prophet

How to engage readers of this review of Bang & Lee’s film The Hearing on AI Prophet except to say that it tells the tale of the hearing of an AI driver of autonomous vehicles that has caused an accident? That it tells the tale in tantalising glimpses, that it encompasses much of the contemporary debate around AI, that it is dream-like in tone, textually elliptical, elegiac, rich, endlessly interpretable and that it takes place in a dystopic, Ballardian near future of extinctions and ruined man-made landscapes where AIs may arguably have replaced all humans. If that doesn’t draw you in…

As I watched the richly texted work, two quotations resonated and started to focus my thinking – one half-remembered from a novel read many years ago and one from the text of the piece itself. These two quotes are the twin axes, the DNA around which my responses to the piece are built.

I want to tackle the first as an introduction to this review and the second while thinking more broadly about the work and its resonances.

The half-remembered quote comes from F Scott Fitzgerald’s final novel, incomplete at his death, The Last Tycoon. Fitzgerald was taking on the subject of Hollywood as an insider having spent some years there as a largely unsuccessful screenwriter. Hollywood was, he understood, a complex construction with an outsize impact on the culture of the time. He put the following words into the mouth of the novel’s slightly cynical and diamond-bright narrator Cecilia, the daughter of a film producer: ‘You can take Hollywood for granted like I did, or you can dismiss it with the contempt we reserve for what we don’t understand. It can be understood too, but only dimly and in flashes.’

Substitute AI for Hollywood and the quote still makes complete sense, as does Cecilia’s conclusion that, even dimly and in flashes, ‘not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation […] in their heads’. Updating for more inclusive times it seems that even half a dozen people understanding the whole equation, or more accurately the whole algorithm, of AI might be a stretch.

Hollywood has been the subject of frequent and ongoing debate over the last century, its impacts on society, culture and politics contested and put under the microscope of (pop) cultural opinion, scholarly debate and political grandstanding. Despite this though it is, for the majority of people a given in our cultural landscape, accepted without undue concern or thought.

Rarely, however, has a technology been so hotly debated and at the same time so widely taken for granted, so unseen as AI – heralded on the extremes as both salvific by technoevangelists and apocalyptic by technosecularists, as both the saviour and the destroyer of humanity. The truth undoubtedly lies somewhere in the middle. The materialist practices of AI continue to shape our lives and multiple issues, from its inbuilt prejudices to its hollowing out of the labour force, continue to be debated.

It is against this backdrop that Bang & Lee’s work, The Hearing on AI Prophet was created and exhibited in 2023. The piece is the second of three film works and was shown with the first, Eyeshine, in a multi-media and multi-practice exhibition at the Total Museum of Contemporary Art (TMCA) in Seoul, South Korea. The two film pieces were contextualised and augmented by recordings of poetry, oil paintings, drawings and 3D-printed ceramic objects. The third of the films, Lost in the Metaverse, was shown online concurrently with the exhibition.

A disclaimer and for clarity: I didn’t see this piece in the exhibition but on YouTube, alongside documentation supplied of the other elements of the exhibition and its staging. Whilst this review focuses on The Hearing on AI Prophet, I will also draw on the other two films in considering it.

The film puts us in media res into the debate that currently swirls around AI and autonomous vehicles, through tantalising glimpses of that debate played out as a hearing at a fictitious AI Congress.

The film is a three-screen installation, with each screen featuring an AI-human hybrid character. From left to right, they are The AI Prophet, which is the subject of the hearing; the AI Chairman, which is trained to verify the reliability and safety of the AI Prophet’s system; and the AI Agent, which is designed to investigate and analyse incidents involving autonomous vehicles. The AI Agent represents other interested parties, who can be seen gathering dimly in the shadows behind it. These include curators, philosophers, artists, designers, an employee of an autonomous vehicle manufacturer, an employee of an insurance company and so on.

Although the three protagonists are pictured on separate screens, the characters are all located in one space in the context of the story. There is a fourth character – a narrator who is heard but unseen. The narrator is a stage setter, an omniscient interpreter of events, and a giver of explanatory commas, which is to say that it will break into the narrative to explain or clarify certain terms. The narrator is, in effect, functioning as the chorus would in a Greek tragedy.

The hearing has been called to consider an accident caused following a decision made by the Prophet, which has caused minor injuries to two passengers in the vehicle it was controlling. We catch flashes of the incident both in this film and Eyeshine, and a model in the exhibition shows the aftermath. So, though it is never fully played out, we understand that the Prophet was surprised by a white-tailed deer, a species thought long extinct, which suddenly appeared in front of the car, and chose to direct the car to swerve to avoid it, hitting a tree and causing minor injuries to its passengers – which is explicitly contrary to its directives. The hearing spins out from this incident into an examination of AI; I don’t want to spend too long detailing all of that here, fascinating as it is, and some of it will be covered as I think more broadly about the work.

The Hearing on AI Prophet is relatively long for an exhibition piece, running for more than an hour and, with its precursor, Eyeshine, totals close to 75 mins. This puts it well into the longer short film category and it requires attention. The pace is not hurried but it is dense with ideas and there’s little handholding for the audience – which to my mind is always a good thing. There’s a challenge here and a prompt to conversation with fellow audience members – What did you see? What did that mean to you? – it’s exemplary of one of the kinds of work that interests me most as a curator working with digital art and artists, in that it uses digital tools to critique the digital. It is designed to prompt debate.

It took me a while to find a way into the work and I felt I needed to grasp it in its entirety but in fact that’s not necessary. Beyond being an analogy for AI, the Fitzgerald quote resonated on another level as I watched this film and spent time thinking about it. Which is to say that I grasped it in flashes: flashes of ideas, of imagery and of text. The density of the work makes this feel deliberate. There is only so much that a viewer can take in on one viewing and different ideas, images and so on will resonate with different people. Taken altogether the work – The Hearing on AI Prophet, its companion films and the other material elements that made up the exhibition – offer glimpses of the central story, a science fiction for us to interpret.

I want to get to the second of the quotes that I mentioned in the opening of this review and, beyond that, highlight some of the flashes of thoughts that this piece provoked in me on my first viewing of the work.

The second quote comes from the text of the film and is spoken by the AI Prophet. It functions both as a commentary from his presumably human creator and a self-reflection on his state of existence: ‘Je fais le pantin, je tire les ficelles, mais une fois sur la scène, le spéctacle est à lui’ – this French saying translates to ‘I make the puppet, I pull the strings, but once on the stage the show is his’. In speaking this, the AI Prophet is reflecting somewhat sadly on its own existence – separated from its creator and responsible for carrying out its role without fault. The tone here is elegiac and rather wistful, loaded with the understanding that, as it says elsewhere: ‘I’m just a by-product resembling human intelligence.’ “Je fais le pantin’ can also be interpreted as playing the clown and at once The AI Prophet is both a failed prophet and a sad clown. This puts the character at the centre of the drama, the source of the dramatic tension.

Read at a more meta level, the quote offers a couple of interpretations: firstly, an analogy on one of the central debates around AI and secondly, on the nature of art and art practice and conceptually what connects the two – namely, a loss of control.

Once created and unleashed on the world, an AI becomes its own creature, its workings a black box that even its creators cannot penetrate. Many stories detail that process, whereby the AI is making decisions and choices that the creators can no longer understand. To be clear, there is nothing mystical about this; it’s not evidence of any forthcoming AI-driven apocalypse, but it should concern us all nonetheless. The puppet is cut loose from its creator and the creator has little to no control. And once the audience sees the puppet they have no thought for the puppeteer no matter that the puppeteer is the creator and animator of the puppet and notwithstanding the puppeteer’s motivations.

This reflects a wider issue with responses to AI in that most people, perhaps the majority of people, even when they are aware that they are dealing with an AI – scrolling through TikTok, for example – don’t consider the motivations of the person that created that AI. The last word on this goes to the AI Chairman, who questions the AI Prophet on its use of the puppet adage: ‘So it’s metaphorical. Once humans complete the AI System and release it into this world, that technology will operate with uncontrollable power.’ Quite.

The second interpretation of the French saying is that the artist loses control over the meaning of their work once it has been made available to the public. This post-structuralist view says that a viewer brings their own experience, understanding and interests to a piece of work from which they construct meaning, which may or may not correspond to the artist’s original intentions.

So, finally, here are the flashes of ideas and thoughts I had as I watched the film for the first time:


In its scene-setting at the beginning of the film, the narrator tells us: ‘To recreate a space with a “retro” ambience that encompasses past designs, artisanal skills, and cultural significance, the AI Congress collected items dating back at least 100 years for the hearing chamber. Much has been said about the ways in which AI can only look to the past, to what already exists in order to envision the future and this felt like a nod towards that idea. The past enriches the future.


The tone is set early as the narrator describes the three protagonists at the hearing: ‘Their backgrounds and identities are unknown. It’s hard to tell their age by their faces and voices. Of average appearance, they look neither particularly young nor old, and they may, depending on the viewer, be perceived as being of various ages.’ Elsewhere the AI Agent is described as veiled. The light in the hearing chamber is dim, and the tone throughout is measured, quiet, perhaps even monotonal. All of these add to a sense of Brechtian alienation – we are drawn into this debate and this world, which is made to look familiar to us but kept at a distance by the impenetrable surface of it, the lack of what we might characterise as human drama though the characters look human we are made very aware that they aren’t.


The three protagonists are referred to as being ‘mixblood’ by the narrator as in that they are AI/human hybrids. This was the only jarring element in the script. It feels like an uncomfortable coinage today.


The scene of the accident that has prompted the hearing is located as being in the ‘remnants of the Metaverse left in ruins’. The accident features a species of deer thought to have gone extinct. It is a future in which the ‘real’ world and the online world have been subject to destruction due to cataclysmic climate change. This all adds to the sense that there are no humans left either to populate the real world or maintain the online world and that what we are watching play out truly is the puppet separated from the puppeteer and acting out its own stories.


According to the narrator, the AI Chairman thinks that ‘there’s a lack of varied debates and conversations among humans concerning AI. He believes philosophers and artists should be more vocal, but since there is no guarantee of enough dialogue, he’s concerned about the uncertain future.’ This is something that I have believed to be true for the past 20 years or so. Artists’ voices should be in this space – it is one of the reasons I was drawn to this work. Much like the Chairman, though, I worry that even when those voices are heard, nothing will change.


In the chapter of the film called The Dilemma of Prophecy, the nature of the Prophet as one who can see the future is called into question. The AI Agent testifies that prophets are blind. This reminded me of Tiresias the blind prophet in Greek mythology. The AI Prophet is elsewhere referred to as an oracle who cannot see, certainly in a human sense. Prophets and oracles might also be cursed so that they are not believed. This reminded me of Cassandra and the AI Prophet who in the accident failed properly to predict the future and cannot be believed because the accident was supposed not to be able to happen. The AI Prophet is also compared to Prometheus who could ‘see’ forward. These glimpses of Greek mythology and the narrator’s function as the chorus in a Greek tragedy add to the sense of this work as more universal and even more monumental than it might appear on the surface.

[flash – I’m cheating slightly here because this comes from the companion film, Lost in the Metaverse]

During the film, the male character relates the early 20th-century Russian parable The Tale of the Scorpion and the Frog. In this tale a scorpion must cross a river, it cannot swim so it asks a frog if it would carry him across on its back. The frog initially refuses stating that the scorpion would surely sting him and he’d die. The scorpion points out that stinging the frog would be foolish because he wouldn’t then be able to cross the river which he needs to do. Eventually, the frog agrees, the scorpion climbs on his back and they start to cross the river. Halfway across the scorpion stings the frog, as it starts to sink the poisoned frog asks why because now they’ll both die. I can’t help it says the scorpion, it’s just my nature.

This could function as a parable on AI as well as human nature where the AI or the human will always reveal its true destructive nature even if it appears to be collaborating, but I was more interested in another aspect of it. After telling the story the character’s partner asks if he remembered that all himself, he scoffs and says no but the AI did, which implies that he is a puppet for the AI and not therefore fully human – perhaps not human at all.

The Hearing on AI Prophet is an extraordinarily powerful work that tackles a critical issue. The film is designed to be interpretable, to provoke debate amongst its audience on the nature of the work and of AI itself. Surrounding these computer-generated films in the exhibition with material elements, the 3D models and paintings, enrich and make real the world of the work and they function to deepen the debate.

We live in a world increasingly shaped by AI. It dictates what we see online, predicts our responses offers us more of the same and reifies our beliefs. It has material impacts on traffic, on the way we move through cities, and on the way that populations are policed and prosecuted. Its prejudices are apparent, and its shortcomings are often minimised by those who would sell it to us by overclaiming what it is capable of. It can offer material benefits too, make our lives easier but we need to be aware of the problems, we need to be having the conversations that this film and its companion pieces are inviting us to have.

The Prophet in the Darkness Exhibition in 2023 at the Total Museum of Contemporary Art (TMCA) in Seoul, South Korea
Review by Laurence Hill FRSA 🔗
Curator | Doctoral researcher at University of Sussex | Visiting Fellow at the Sussex Humanities Lab
January 2024