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Big Concepts Will AI Reinvent Art, Or Destroy It?

Will AI Reinvent Art, Or Destroy It?

Will AI Reinvent Art, Or Destroy It?
An AI-generated artwork that sold for over US$400,000 at Christie's
By Melissa Twigg
By Melissa Twigg
June 03, 2019
Artificial-intelligence “artists” are selling works for hundreds of thousands of dollars and getting their own gallery shows. But is art still art when it's made by a machine?

What is art? Is it simply something we make? Or is it an expression of our thoughts, emotions, intuitions, and desires? Some would argue it goes even deeper than that, and true art becomes a way of sharing how we experience the world, and by that extension, our hidden inner monologue.

But how does our experience of art or design change when the piece in front of us has been created by an algorithm? Late last year, an ink-on-canvas portrait made by artificial intelligence was sold at Christie’s New York: the first AI-generated artwork to be offered by a major auction house. The estimate was US$7,000-$10,000. It went for $432,500. Critics said it wasn’t art—as they once did for different modes of painting or photography—but whether you agree with the concept or not, that single sale ensured AI-generated painting, craft, and sculpture had become a new artistic medium to collect.

Last month in New York, there was an exhibition called “Faceless Portraits Transcending Time,” in the HG Contemporary gallery in Chelsea, the epicentre of the city's contemporary-art world. All of them were created by a computer. The catalogue calls the show a “collaboration between an artificial intelligence named AICAN and its creator, Ahmed Elgammal,” a move that anthropomorphises the machine-learning algorithm that did most of the work. According to HG Contemporary, it’s the first solo gallery exhibit devoted to an AI artist.

A portrait created by an artificial intelligence named AICAN
A portrait created by an artificial intelligence named AICAN

As a result, the once heavily enforced barrier between artists and tech and science innovators is set to blur in a way that we never previously thought possible. Stephanie Sy is a 30-year-old AI specialist based in Manila, who has built machine learning models and data strategies for major clients in the private sector. But in her spare time she creates AI art.

“I think of the algorithm as another sort of paintbrush, she says. “It’s a medium of expression and I can see why some people worry about the entire field of art because the medium is changing for certain people, but they shouldn’t. It’s super exciting. Don’t forget how much we can learn from machines. In the future our ideas and concept of creativity will be shaped by AI learning, and that will lead to a renaissance in how people perceive art and express themselves.”

Some of the biggest artists and craft makers in in the world are now using AI in their work. There are AI-assisted paintings by experimental NYC multimedia artist Addie Wagenknecht, in which she programmes a robot with an algorithm to paint a canvas, but reclines naked in its pathway to obstruct it. Or there is the installation by pioneering digital artist collective JODI, which trains a computer to play noughts and crosses. What unites them is a self-aware exploration and critical examination of the tech age and how the fusion of human creativity with machines is creating an entirely new art form.

Hans Ulrich Obrist is the artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries in London’s Hyde Park and he has helped to make AI central to the gallery’s offering. Following digital commissions for their website, AI also recently featured in a Serpentine show by American simulation artist Ian Cheng, French multimedia art icon Pierre Huyghe, and German writer, artist and filmmaker Hito Steyerl.

And the Serpentine is not the only institution to give a significant platform to AI artworks. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London had an Artificially Intelligent display last year, and MoMA in New York held a Research & Development salon called AI – Artificial Imperfection.

“There is still a fetishisation of traditional ways of making things,” says east London-based sculptor and furniture designer Gareth Neal, whose extraordinary pieces have been acclaimed globally and are partly designed by an algorithm. “But a great object or painting inspires you and makes you feel wonderful, and it doesn’t really matter who has made it, so long as it creates that feeling. The soul of an object is all in your perception of it; it’s what you imbue it with.”

Stephanie Sy
Stephanie Sy

Ultimately, artists and designers have been relying on human advancements for centuries. Where would the Impressionists have been without the invention of portable paint tubes that enabled them to paint outdoors?  Who would have heard of Andy Warhol without silkscreen printing? Seen in that sense, tech is simply another format where artists can express themselves.

"We’re dependent on tools and machines in all other works of life, so why not art and craft?" asks Sy. "In creative industries, we buy into the notion of romantic handwork, but I think it's wrong, as we’re not giving up handwork, we’re just extending our ability in an entirely new way. I'm incredibly excited to see what impact AI has on the creative world. Art as we know it will change forever."


Big Concepts art AI machine learning Stephanie Sy Christie's


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