Artificial intelligence (AI) is easily one of the most defining and disruptive advancements of our generation with no signs of slowing down. While the modern concept of AI dates back to the 1950s, its technological advancement and growth in the past five to ten years has been unprecedented. Machines are now able to generate highly realistic images, video and text to such an extent as to challenge human creativity on a whole new level. The art world in particular is experiencing these effects through the proliferation and popularization of digital artworks created with the use of machine learning.
One of the first inroads into the field of art and technology stems from an area of machine experimentation referred to as computational creativity. In the 1960s, Bell Telephone Laboratories Inc. engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldhauer alongside artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman formed a collective called The Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), which applied creative uses of computers. Today with the exponential growth of technology, a number of leading artists of generative art including Anna Ridler, Jake Elwes and Mario Klingemann, are utilizing machine learning to create what is referred to as AI or generative art. These artists often use a type of algorithm called a Generative Adversarial Network (GAN) which trains on a dataset of tens and thousands of images that can generate increasingly lifelike images and alter existing ones. Popular exhibitions including the “AI: More than Human” at the Barbican Centre last summer and the highly publicized $432,500 sale of the Portrait of Edmond Belamy at Christie’s in 2018 have spawn a newfound interest and hype around machine-made art. Many of these exhibitions and artworks, however, often take advantage of AI as a tech buzzword rather than a creative medium.
A general misconception as with much of generative art is that it is all done at a push of a button. This ultimately stems from a general misunderstanding of how machine learning works and its current capabilities. Generative artworks such as Mosaic Virus, 2019 by artist Anna Ridler is created with the use of an algorithm, however Ridler still needs to be programmed by the artist, given chosen data and complete direction. If a work were to be fully created by an AI, the AI would need to have the intention to do so. Instead, the process is led by the artist and their vision. As with any other art that experiments with randomness and elements outside of the artists’ full control, the outcome is a result of the artist’s experimentation with the uncontrollable elements. While the recently exhausted argument philosophising on “who’s the artist” sparks lively curiosity about generative art, the more interesting angle lies in “what does this generative art reveal about our relationship to AI technology?”.
Aside from the debate of who’s the artist, the art itself raises key questions on how these algorithms work; what can the machine see? A well-known artist in the generative art community named Robbie Barrat does not just use machine learning for the sake of it. Instead, Barrat imbues and approaches his works from a certain creative take on the technology such as exploring what a machine will output when he intentionally gets the algorithm to fail. By their nature GANs are meant to generate realistic images. However, Barrat tweaks his algorithms to generate more interesting, creative results seen with his distorted Nude Portraits.
“I realized that since it was much more interesting when the network did not correctly learn rules; I tried to generate nude portraits – and maximize the “misinterpretation” by the network.” – Robbie Barrat
His notoriety and innovativeness has drawn Barrat’s collaborations within the high fashion world with Balenciaga and Acne Studios to create clothing shapes with the use of GANs. Education and greater exposure of creative coding has created a huge growth of the “art and tech” community. Major technology conferences including NeurIPS (The Conference and Workshop on Neural Information Processing Systems) and Ars Electronica are offering more panels on creative computing. Digital art prizes, such as The Lumen Prize in particular, are creating a community fueled by a shared passion for art and technology.
The Lumen Prize for Art and Technology founded in 2012 by Carla Rapoport provides a platform for artists pioneering art and technology through an ongoing series of exhibitions, events and an annual arts competition. The 2019 winners included Refik Anadol for his “Melting Memories” digital artworks and Maja Petric with the 3D / Interactive Award for her light installation entitled, We Are All Made of Light. The jury panel was comprised of notable art world figures including Ben Vickers, the Chief Technology Officer of the Serpentine Galleries and Christiane Paul, Adjunct Curator of New Media Arts at the Whitney Museum, signaling the seriousness with which digital arts are increasingly being taken in the fine art world.
During a recent symposium at the London Art Fair entitled, “Symbiosis: The Art in Science,” panelists including Sarah Cook, curator of the current 24/7 exhibition at Somerset House and Dr. Kay Barrett, curator at The Science Museum, commented on the inseparable connection between art and science. As Dr. Barrett put it, “science is culture.” Oftentimes science and technology are associated with logical, factual matters in direct opposition to the creative, open-ended and possibly irrational nature of the arts. However from a conceptual standpoint, the two could not be more similar. In essence the arts and the sciences are bound together by their explorations of creativity. A growing number of art exhibitions and leading generative artists are carrying over this mentality and education to the fine art world. Perhaps this is the generation that will finally bridge the conceptual gap between art and technology.
Devon Nocera is a curator at Art Acumen, a London-based art consultancy, where she manages artist commissions and advises on a variety of art and technology projects. She has a background in communications and brand partnerships with companies including Moët Hennessy, La Prairie and Vogue. Following her passion for art, Devon earned a Master’s degree in Art Business from the Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London where she wrote her dissertation examining the impact of artificial intelligence and the art world. Her Bachelor’s degree is in Art, Branding and Literature from the Gallatin School of Individualized Study within New York University. Devon is a member of the Association of Women in the Arts (AWITA).