Herding Electric Sheep

Art made of visuals that continuously morph from one moment of semi-stability into the next challenge a view of what art is and is ultimately for.

Specifically I am thinking of the work of Refik Anadol Studio, which is generated by artificial intelligence networks based on specifically curated data points and controlled by aesthetic choices built into the programming as well as trained into the process itself.

Unlike the text-to-image generators which have broadsided the artistic community of late, these programs have not been created to come up with single visuals in any given style. Instead, they are groomed artificial intelligence networks which have been developed to continuously output what should be thought of as a “single” work of art, which is itself a product of the networks continuous development.

I have not had the pleasure of experiencing any of these works “in the flesh” so to speak during an installation. Rather, what is posted on their website are only instances of the artwork in action, recorded as videos and stills, showing moments of a never-ending visual production that is constantly coming into being.

The output is quite simply stunning, vibrant, mesmerizing even awe-inspiring at moments. It certainly fills a unique slot within what may become a novel frontier for art and computer science, which I believe is exactly what the artist himself is hoping for. It is undeniable that his work and collaboration with other leading figures within the technology and programming sector has already driven developments within AI performance, graphics processing and broader integrations of AI into different fields. It is a contemporary example of art pushing the boundaries of what is achievable, and causing waves beyond the world of pure aesthetics or the art market.

I have no interest in debating whether or not this is art, but I do want to lean into a few areas in which it has opened up room for exploring other aspects of art theory. Such as what it asks us to consider about aesthetics and intrinsic value, historical dialogue, and the nature of the medium. There are also some interesting questions around the artistic statement and execution of the piece which may have implications for the role that AI is playing in our lives.

As I frame my ideas on this topic I think I would like to outline the points below, and then take each one into an individual discussion during subsequent posts.

Questionable Aesthetics of Scale

For many of the works created by this studio the artifact output created due to the processing of information by the AI network is represented as a never-ending, never repeating, ever shifting digital visual.

What does it mean that the work has no beginning and end? What is the relationship between the moment and the “whole”? Or the speed with which it transitions from one instance to the next? Can we even speak in terms of instances, moments and fragments?

How is it possible for a human capacity for perception and attention can connect meaningfully with such a scale of representation? What does the desire for the never-ending, self-generating, perpetually perpetuating, say about the artist and the viewer?

Narrative Dissonance

Anadol has created several site-specific or topic-specific works. In fact, each work is built around a very specific narrative grain or purpose which is explained within the statement. Most of these ideas become embodied within the data set and grooming choices which impact how the programs process and from what they pull their “inspiration”.

For example, one artwork was built upon coral reef data in order that it could create its own versions. Another, as part of a MoMa show, used the museum’s catalog information as the raw data for fueling further outputs created by the AI. Yet another took its data from a bounded set of dates and geography limited to Renaissance Italy as a starting point to explore the meta implications of that era.

These networks are pulling form curated sources which humans have determined to belong together culturally (at least in the latter two instances). The artist hopes that, through our experience of viewing what the AI has dreamed up based off of these data sets, we will be able to read purposeful meaning into both the data sets themselves as well as the larger cultural artistic conversation.

Meaning, and narrative, depend, however, on some common ground of understanding. AI networks famously operate beyond the comprehension of even their creators. While we may understand the framework, the basic functionality and the input it does not automatically mean that we will be able to meaningfully comprehend the output of such an experiment. Is there meaning to be found here, or even inspiration? What value do such meta-analysis of culture bring to the larger conversation?

The Paradox of Control and Escape

Less specific to the art works in question, but resonant with similar approaches to the role that AI might come to play in our world, I feel that our uses of the technology highlight the strange ways in which we chase technology as an escape from ourselves.

In a world which is so highly connected (on an information and communication level), in which we can already see so many permutations of the human spirit at work, we seek to create entirely new spaces, experiences and ways of interacting. We seem not only not content to engage with the complexities of the world in which we find ourselves, but instead go out of our way to facilitate the existence of new worlds which have rules which we fundamentally cannot understand. We drown within the world of the real and seek to create new areas with their own fathomless depths.

As a cultural signifier of where we are as humans, what does the form of AI powered art say about who we are and what we are trying to achieve?