The weird and wonderful art created when AI and humans unite
Alexander Reben / BBC:
In 2020, I was in a creative funk. The Covid-19 pandemic was transforming relationships, gatherings, and ways of working. Like many, I struggled to feel inspired when we were all physically isolated from one another. However, amid all the chaos and uncertainty I found an unexpected collaborator: an AI.
A fish is a small, silver-coloured creature with a long, slender body. Its fins are delicate and transparent, and its tail is forked. Its eyes are large and black, and its mouth is small.
It’s not pulled from the internet – the AI writes itself. However, GPT-3 can do far more than a few sentences: with the right prompts, it can produce essays, fiction, and even articles like this one. Its writing often passes for human. I played with all manner of output: dad jokes, poems, sci-fi stories and more.
After a couple of weeks of experimentation, I realised the AI had the potential to describe imaginary artworks. To my delight, I discovered I could prompt it to write the kind of text you see on a wall label next to a painting in an art gallery. This would prove to be the start of a fascinating collaborative journey with GPT-3 and a suite of other AI art tools, leading to work that has ranged from a physical sculpture of toilet plungers to full-size oil paintings on the wall of a Mayfair art gallery.
In recent months, AI-generated art has provoked much debate about whether it will be bad news for artists. There’s little doubt that there will be disruptive changes ahead, and there are still important questions about bias, ethics, ownership and representation that need to be answered. However, this would not be the first time that new technologies have caused upheaval in the art world – it’s been happening for centuries. And in my own experience, working with AI to make sculptures, paintings and more has transformed how I think about the creative process and the possibilities of human-machine collaboration. I believe we’re now seeing the emergence of a whole new artform.
To be clear, when I refer to AI, it’s not an anthropomorphic or sentient system, but a machine learning algorithm – and there needs to be a human in the process. I quickly learnt this in my early experiments with GPT-3, when I asked it to create imaginary artworks. While it was fairly easy to get the system to create descriptions that all sounded good, getting it to create output that I considered interesting was another thing altogether. I spent about a month on “prompt engineering”, a term which means writing effective input text for AI systems.
Once I found a sequence of initial words that would “tickle” the AI in the right way, I developed a workflow with GPT-3 and other algorithms that could produce a description of an artwork and the imagined human name of its creator, along with their birthdate and other details (which are sometimes gleaned by asking GPT-3 questions). I then sifted through hundreds to thousands of outputs to find ones that I like. Those were then fed back into the system to create more text. I then corrected for punctuation, spacing and other technical tweaks to the text (nothing that changes its meaning).
The sculpture contains a plunger, a toilet plunger, a plunger, a plunger, a plunger, and a plunger, each of which has been modified. The first plunger is simply a normal plunger, but the rest represent a series of plungers with more and more of the handle removed until just the rubber cup is left. The title of the artwork is “A Short History of Plungers and Other Things That Go Plunge in the Night” by the artists known as “The Plungers” (whose identity remains unknown).
“The Plungers”, were a collective of anonymous artists, founded in 1972. They were dedicated to the “conceptualization and promotion of a new art form called Plungism.” Plungism was a creative interpretation of the idea of Plungerism, which was defined by The Plungers as “a state of mind wherein the mind of an artist is in a state of flux and able to be influenced by all things, even plungers.” The Plungers’ works were displayed in New York galleries and included such titles as “Plunger’s Progress,” “The Plungers,” “The Plungers Strike Back,” and “Big Plunger 4: The Final Plunger,” all of which featured plungers, and “Plungers on Parade,” which showed images of plungers in public spaces. The Plungers disappeared and left no trace of their identity.
This led me to wonder: what if I took these generative descriptions and made them in real life? As the AI can’t make physical objects, it would be up to my human faculties to do so. Moving the work from the digital to the physical realm, I concluded, would add weight and presence to them, which is sometimes lacking on a screen. A kind of symbiosis formed, with the AI producing output that it then “needed” my imagination, fabrication ability, aesthetic judgment, and intuition to visualise and complete.
One could easily see this absurd sculpture comfortably parked next to Duchamp’s urinal in a high-concept museum. Of course, “The Plungers” collective never existed, but this narrative creates a compelling story in this work of fictional realism. As with many contemporary artworks, the text is as important as the artwork itself, so I consider the final work diptychs, the artwork, and the wall label together.One of the unexpected offshoots of working with GPT-3 was that it encouraged me to experiment with artistic mediums and techniques that I may have never tried on my own. It also prompted me to work with other artists to produce art in mediums in which I had no expertise or skillset.
For example, graffiti has an aesthetic vocabulary and terminology that I am not an expert in. However, when I gave an AI description of a graffiti work to my friend who has been a graffiti artist for decades, he was able to render the artwork in a way that neither the AI nor I could. This added yet another human into the human-machine loop.
My experiments with AI didn’t end there. In the last year, there’s been an explosion in “generative” AI art. For some of these tools, such as Dall-E 2, Midjourney, and Stable Diffusion, you can simply write a prompt – a description of an image – and the AI will draw it for you. For others, like Artbreeder Collage and Make-A-Scene, you make a rudimentary sketch or initial collage alongside the prompt, and it fleshes out the detail. Each platform varies in both its aesthetic output and its features.
Of course, with the proliferation of these technologies, there have been detractors of this new art form. For example, Charles Baudelaire writes: “This industry, by invading the territories of art, has become art’s most mortal enemy.”
Actually, that was written in 1859, and Baudelaire was talking about a newfangled invention, the camera. Time would prove him wrong: photography became art, and other forms of media continued just fine.
AI art is still in the “ooo-shiny” phase where its inherent newness is interesting enough to hold attention, just as I would imagine the 1896 film “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” was at the dawn of filmmaking. It will be those using these tools in a conceptually rigorous way that push it from being a novelty into fine art.
I see my own work as a playful investigation into a human-machine symbiosis and a glimpse into the possible futures of artmaking. My hope is that these artworks act as a conduit to encourage people to think about what our symbiotic future with intelligent machines might look like. I’ve been interested in human-machine symbiosis for over a decade, and I see the machine learning tools of the last few years as a huge leap forward in what it means to collaborate with AI.
As technology becomes more of an extension and amplification of our minds – just as a wrench is an extension of our hands and amplifies our physical ability – AI becomes more of a collaborator rather than a calculator. Unlike creative tools of the past, such as Photoshop, photographs or pigments, we are now working with tools that seem to have generative imagination, but perhaps no “taste”. The human in the loop adds an important curatorial role in determining the “good” versus “bad”.
I believe we are on the cusp of a new artistic movement, and I view these tools as the beginning of the next great period of creative expression. As the surface-level novelty wears off, works of fine art will emerge. Just as we have entire museums dedicated to photography, I’d be on the lookout for the same for AI.
*Alexander Reben is an artist and MIT-trained roboticist whose work probes the inherently human nature of the artificial. He investigates our relationships with algorithms, automation and amplification using experimentation and prototyping, absurdity and humor, and mischief and play to engage the public with complex ideas in technology in an approachable way. His work is currently exhibited at the Bitforms gallery in San Francisco, and will appear at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore in January.