A persistent myth of popular consciousness is that art is essentially different from technology: while “hand-made” stands for human creativity and uniqueness, the “machine” is all about mass production, repetition, and even dehumanization. But, a look at the AI approach in the artworks of some of the contemporary artists and how they are using emerging technologies for creative expression debunks this myth and speaks to an exciting turn in the real art world.
Automation has been around for a while and has mainly been used in repetitive simple movements and tasks. In recent times, however, artificially intelligent systems have come to challenge our own human ingenuity. Computer-generated algorithms and robots are generating beautiful visuals, writing profound verses, creating soulful music, and even writing engaging movie scripts. What, then, remains of human creativity? How do we reconcile artificial intelligence with human creative endeavours, especially in the world of real art?
Here, we look at the AI approach of some exceptional contemporary artists who do not consider tech a threat, but a collaborator to create provocative works. Their art inhabits the liminal space between man and machine, between the structured and the indeterminate, between form and formlessness. They have created an entirely new language of art, which is just beginning to garner widespread attention in the art world.
Sougwen Chung is a Chinese-born, Canadian-raised artist, who has training in fine art, digital media, and violin. The process of making music informs her AI approach in art as she explores the parallels between instrumentation, or the process of sound-making through tactile inputs, and that of mark-making, or the process of drawing or painting on an empty canvas.
Through a series of installations, paintings, and performances (she used to do live shows where she carried out AI-assisted painting sessions) she explores the intersections of technology and human creativity. While the AI approach in art has mainly taken the forms of graphics, digital art, etc. Chung is interested in physical art. She has programmed and designed around two dozen robotic arms, which have been taught to imitate her gestures through a careful study of her 20 years’ worth of paintings. In her artistic process, she and her robots are partners who are linked through a common knowledge bank. The robots are fed her brain-wave data that make them experts in imitating her gestures.
But, then, as far as the art world is concerned, does that make the robots collaborators or mere imitators? For Chung, the answer is not simple. Robots cannot fully replicate human creativity independently. At the same time, they do not mimic the copies of paintings that Chung has fed them either. Instead, one can say that the robots are more like interpreters, producing their own copies of the paintings that their master has made.
Stylistically, Chung’s paintings are an interplay of fluid lines, forms, and broad brush strokes. Vaguely reminiscent of the celebrated Japanese artist Hokusai’s work, such as The Great Wave of Kanagawa, Chung’s paintings depict spiralling clouds and waves of blues and whites, tendrils of black lines, and calligraphy-inspired bold brush strokes. Chung truly embodies the next level of AI approach in art, where computational intelligence is a collaborator of the human mind.
Memo Akten takes computational intelligence to a whole new level altogether in his AI approach. Hailing originally from Turkey, he works with emerging technologies to create visuals, sounds, and films that explore nature and the human condition.
In the work Deep Meditations: A Brief History of Almost Everything in 60 Minutes, he uses neural networking (a branch of machine learning that mimics the way the human brain functions) to present images that depict the evolution of the universe – from grand events like nuclear fission of the sun to minute processes like photosynthesis.This in itself is a unique AI approach. This large-scale video and sound installation leaves it to AI to come up with a subjective depiction of this evolution. Told through the imagination of neural networking, it contains very little human intervention and invites us to appreciate the interconnectedness of all human, non-human, living, and non-living things that make up the universe.
Helena Sarin's tool of choice is GAN, or generative adversarial network. GAN is a new branch of machine learning that takes input data and automatically finds patterns to generate entirely new output. It is now increasingly being used in a wide range of fields, including fashion, video games, photography and even in the real art world.
Sarin's art is inspired by still life, including depictions of food, flowers, vases, and bottles, etc., which are fractured and then recombined to create new forms. This parallels how GAN’s algorithms function as well.
Imagine drawing portraits of people who don’t exist. In the art world this might sound like an improbable proposition. But this challenging task has been made possible by Mario Klingemann, an AI artist who works with neural networks, codes, and algorithms to create portraits of imagined people.
In Memories of Passersby I, Klingemann uses a system of neural networks to generate a never-ending, never-repeating stream of artistic portraits of people who do not exist. His AI was trained on thousands of portraits painted between the 17th and 19th centuries, lending a Romantic aesthetic to the machine generated images.
Closer to home, there’s Harshit Agrawal, who has been a pioneer in developing the genre of AI for the art scene in India. His works have been nominated twice for the Lumen Prize, a top art-tech award, and he recently held the first solo exhibition in India in Kolkata, showcasing his AI approach. He uses AI as a collaborator and invites us to ruminate upon the limitations of human imagination.
For Terrain.art’s exhibition Intertwined Intelligences: Imagining Digital Realities with AI, which Agrawal curated and participated in, he explored landscape alongside his AI. He trained his AI with a series of images of landscapes from WikiArt to produce dreamlike imagined representations of the same. He then created physical counterparts of these images and bundled the two together to comment on the current state of our dual existence. These works aptly represent the peculiar predicament of contemporary human life: our desire for materiality while constantly being sucked into a dreamlike digital state.
David Young has been working with AI since its emergence in the 1980s, and he has spent his entire career perfecting his unique AI approach.
In one of his latest series, which was presented in Intertwined Intelligences, Young explores the fragility of the current moment, which seems to be blown apart by the onset of new technologies. Using the image of the dandelion flower as a metaphor, the series shows the moment where the flower blows apart into thousands of seed heads. However, Young does not completely rely on neural networks for the final outcomes. Instead, through human-coded rules, he manipulates individual pixels into lines, shapes, and patterns according to his own liking. The result is interesting: a perfect harmony between inscrutable knowledge of AI and the human knowledge of algorithmic rules.