Agnieszka Polska: The Demon’s Brain

Here an outstanding modern exhibition by Agnieszka Polska is described. The exhibition consists of video, audio and text and thematic history, capitalism, human responsibility and AI with help of a thought experiment paralleling Maxwell’s demon. Further text deals with the demons in science and art as well as with the phenomenon of AI. You are welcome to continue to read, to visit the exhibition or both, in whichever order you prefer.


27.09.2018 to 03.03.2019


It is an exhibition with four video walls – shot incredibly beautiful and rendered with animation. On the fifth wall a lot of written text is surrounded by darkness. In front of the video walls you can lay down and relax. In opposite, the reading of the text on the fifth wall has to be done standing upright. Everything is accompanied by the sound – mainly dialog. The texts are partly historical letters from 15th century addressed to Mikolaj Serafin – an administrator of the salt mines in Poland. An administrator of skill, as he managed to create, at least in artist’s opinion, the first capitalist venture. The videos are about the messenger, who is sent to deliver the said letters, but loses his horse and meets a demon – a demon from the future, which speaks of data, industry, raw materials and artificial intelligence (AI). The demon begs the illiterate messenger to destroy the letters and to stop the first capitalist enterprise, as it is “not to late”.

In texts the transition from the letters to the topics of data, industry and AI is made through essays, which were written especially for this exhibition.


© Agnieszka Polska, Courtesy ŻAK | BRANICKA, Berlin and OVERDUIN & CO., LA

The letters on the text wall are certainly of interest as historical sources and they report on the problems the operation of an enterprise as salt mines was exposed to – pest, shortage on workers and resources, accidents and natural disasters as well as loans, debt and credits. The essays try to connect and to interpret the original salt mine enterprise to the modern world business.

On the four video walls you see the insides of a mine, a landscape outside of the mines covered with mud, scarce forest and cut trees and a messenger being dispatched through this landscape to deliver letters to the salt mine manager.

Furthermore on one of these walls a meeting of the lost messenger with a demon is depicted, as on another one the demon and surreal artificial images are rendered. From each wall a speech is coming, however all four audio tracks are timed in the way that the speakers on the walls talk to each other. It is a conversation instead of chaos.

The Demon’s Brain installation in Hamburger Bahnhof Museum


The exhibition makes a demon to the central piece of the conflict. However this demon is neither evil nor good. In fact it derives its existence from several other philosophical demons, which were not called demons at first. Two examples of these entities are Maxwell’s demon and Laplace demon, but also Schroedingers cat is one. Because these demons are not evil entities, but scientist’s helpers. They were used to postulate thought experiments to anticipate or to challenge some of the scientific assumptions valid at the time of demon’s creation. The fascination of the art with the scientific demons dates a long time back.

Illustration of Maxwell’s Demon breaking the second law of thermodynamics

This exhibition is not different. Agnieszka Polska uses the demon to create a thought experiment, where an entity goes to the past in order to prevent itself. It stops the messenger, who destroys the letters vital for survival of the first capitalistic enterprise  instead of delivering them. However his deed does not affect the future. Was the experiment a failure then? Not at all, because a thought experiment is not performed to change the reality, but to question our understanding of it.

Nevertheless in this particular exhibition, the entity seems to be a demon, as it carries evil in itself – at least evil for humanity. You can extract this vaguely from the dialogue in the videos, but it is strongly suggested by the essays written on the fifth wall. The demon appears to be the demon of the Artificial Intelligence.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a term, which appears everywhere nowadays. It just sold a piece for 432500$ and will be responsible for creation of 58m new jobs till 2022. Of course the price of a piece of art depends on many factors, which was discussed by Vox. However AI suddenly plays a role everywhere, even in the areas, which usually the human beings reserve for themselves.

But what is AI? Merriam-Webster gives two definitions: 1. a branch of computer science dealing with the simulation of intelligent behavior in computers and 2. the capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behavior. Strikingly one definition deals with simulation and another with the imitation of the intelligence. The human intelligence is still the only intelligence for humans, even though it is expanding now from IQ to different types of intelligence as well as starts to cover some animals (dolphins (Intelligence and Cognition, 2009), octopi (Marine Organisms as Model Systems in Biology and Medicine., 2018), primates (Philosophical transactions B, 2011), etc.). Nevertheless it is per definition forbidden for AI to achieve intelligence. And the big barrier here is also humans tendency to anthropomorphize everything – wild and dangerous animals, but also AI (Artificial Intelligence, 2011). Human beings tend to allocate purely human traits to absolutely non-human things and beings and to fear or love them for something, which is not there. This is the reason for huge debate in AI research.

A part of the scientists is playing the imitation game and tries to achieve levels of AI, where it would behave indistinguishable from humans, like Turing proposed in his Turing-Test (Parsing the Turing Test, 2009). Another part argues that research could achieve much more, if the human definition and fears would step aside for rational definitions, which would result in so-called “mindless AI” (IEEE Intelligent Systems, 2006). However the opponents of this approach say that even if it would make the AI research possibly more effective, it doesn’t solve the problem as to when can you call AI intelligent or even conscious. Turing Test solves it by accounting for human bias and therefore it is essential to continue the imitation game.

The Demon’s Brain installation in Hamburger Bahnhof Museum


In general, artists are dealing with human feelings, but often do not account for them. It is natural for human beings to anthropomorphize creatures, creations and phenomenons. However, it is possible to create and to fear demons where none are. And these demons might as well turn out just to be tools for better understanding of the world around us.


  1. Turing A.M. (2009) Computing Machinery and Intelligence. In: Epstein R., Roberts G., Beber G. (eds) Parsing the Turing Test. Springer, Dordrecht
  2. B. Würsig, Intelligence and Cognition, Enciclopedia of Marine Mammals, 616-623, 2009
  3. A. Di Cosmo, V. Maselli, G. Polese (2018) Octopus vulgaris: An Alternative in Evolution. In: Kloc M., Kubiak J. (eds) Marine Organisms as Model Systems in Biology and Medicine. Results and Problems in Cell Differentiation, vol 65. Springer, Cham
  4. S. M. Reader, Y. Hager, K. N. Laland, The evolution of primate general and cultural intelligence, Philosophical Transactions B, 366(1567): 1017–1027, 2011
  5. D. Proudfoot, Antropomorphism and AI: Turing’s much misunderstood imitation game, Artificial Intelligence 175: 950-957, 2011
  6. J. B. Pollack, Mindless Intelligence, IEEE Intelligent Systems, 6, 2006

One thought on “Agnieszka Polska: The Demon’s Brain

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s