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Artists’ AI dilemma: can artificial intelligence make intelligent art?

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Artists’ AI dilemma: can artificial intelligence make intelligent art?

TTwo people dressed in black kneel on the ground, so still that they must surely be in pain. If they grimace, you can’t tell: their features are hidden by oversized, smooth gold masks, as if they’ve buried their faces in half an Easter egg.

Their stillness makes them resemble sculptures, and only by watching the subtle rise and fall of their chests can you confirm that they are indeed human. That’s actually fitting, because they’re not really human, at least not entirely. They are human-machine hybrids, “Idioms”, created by the French artist Pierre Huyghe for his largest exhibition ever, Liminal, at the Punta della Dogana in Venice.

Idioms wander through the exhibition that runs between March and November. Sensors in their masks will monitor the rooms they sit in and the visitors they encounter, and artificial intelligence will gradually convert this information into an entirely new language. Slowly, for example, the masks of the Idioms will come up with the words for “door” or “people” or “writing” – building a dictionary until they can even communicate with each other. Every day their knowledge will accumulate; Huyghe wonders what they will still be able to say in twenty years.

On a crisp day in March, shortly before the exhibition opens to the public, two Idioms kneel in a darkened room opposite a large black box hanging from the ceiling – this is a ‘self-generating instrument’ (also loaded with environmental sensors) and produces ambient music and criss-crossing beams of light. In response to the work of art in front of them, the Idioms appear to have generated only a few syllables, which are intermittently repeated over and over as the LED screens on their foreheads glow gold. Their words are a hissing whisper. It sounds a lot like, “What is this?”

Liminal, with Huyghe’s Portal, a sensory antenna and transmitter, in the center Photo: Ola Rindal/Palazzo Grassi, Pinault Collection

It’s a fair question to ask. The dilemma facing any artist attempting to tackle a subject as paradigm-changing and era-defining as artificial intelligence is that the real magic often happens behind the scenes on some hard drives. Although a flashing server can be seen in Liminal, Huyghe himself admitted at a press conference three days before the opening that it may be difficult for a regular visitor to understand that the language coming from the Idioms’ masks is generated by AI ; he worried that visitors would assume that the people wearing the masks are the ones whispering.

For contemporary artists, there is a clear push to tackle and engage with the vibrant technology that has rapidly disrupted everything from homework to journalism since ChatGPT’s debut in 2022.

Like Huyghe, creatives from German filmmaker Hito Steyerl to British conceptualist Gillian Wearing have used AI to create or enhance their art. Shortly after the first edition of Liminal concludes, an apparently “fully AI-powered” multimedia exhibition of the historic works of French artist Philippe Parreno will open at Haus der Kunst in Munich.

Whether artists are using the technology in an interesting and challenging way or simply hoping to ride the hype is not always easy to determine. A preliminary press release from the Munich show suggests that it’s unclear exactly which elements of Parreno’s exhibition will be artificially intelligent, and it’s easy to see how AI could be cynically tacked onto an exhibition like an Instagram filter, an glossy veneer that makes old work seem new.

AI is already all around us, automatically completing our emails, suggesting a new show to watch on Netflix and reading the weather forecast with the voice of Amazon’s Alexa. In recent years, chatbots have revolutionized writing – responding to requests to write cover letters, code, plays, poems and essays – while text-to-image models like DALL.E and Midjourney enable anyone to ‘create art ‘ by typing in a few words.

Echoes of the Earth: Living Archive by Refik Anadol at the Serpentine Gallery, London. Photo: Guy Bell/REX/Shutterstock

But as the technology becomes more prominent in our daily lives, the use of AI by artists is in danger of becoming banal. Crowds are said to have been “captivated for an hour or more” by Turkish artist Refik Anadol’s “live paintings”, currently on display at the Serpentine Gallery in London. AI was fed images of rainforests and coral reefs to generate Anadol’s exhibition, Echoes of the Earth: Living Archive, with immersive ‘artificial realities’ for visitors to wander through. While the crowd may be fascinated, critics have said Anadol’s previous AI-generated work is overhyped.

“The whole thing looks like a giant techno-lava lamp,” says Jerry Saltz of New York Magazine wrote about Anadol’s Unsupervised, a 24ft screen that used AI to continuously generate images at the Museum of Modern Art between 2022 and 2023. Saltz found the work pointless and mediocre – entertaining briefly, but ultimately “not disturbing anything in you.” In short, he felt that the work had nothing to say.

Saltz argued that “if AI wants to create meaningful art, it will have to provide its own vision and vocabulary.” Literally speaking, this is exactly what Huyghe’s Idioms do. It is strangely fascinating to watch – as a viewer it is interesting to be confronted not with a finite state of ‘artificial intelligence’, but with an ongoing process of ‘artificial learning’.

Here, Huyghe’s use of AI takes art out of the artist’s control, which is exciting – not least because of the possibility of things going wrong. It may be that the Idioms fail to produce a language or produce a language that is dissonant and offensive to our ears. They may be unduly influenced by noisy exhibition visitors or rebel in some way and repeat the same words over and over again.

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It would undoubtedly be fascinating to return day after day and see how the Idioms have responded to the art around them. As Huyghe intended, these strange masked creatures raise questions about the relationship between the human and the non-human (even though my first thought was, “I bet their knees hurt from all that kneeling”).

Endless editing process… a still from Camata by Pierre Huyghe. Photo: Pierre Huyghe/Courtesy the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Marian Goodman Gallery, Hauser & Wirth, Esther Schipper and TARO NASU by SIAE 2023

Less thought-provoking is the use of AI in his work Camata. Robotic limbs surround a skeleton in one of the driest deserts in the world and perform a mysterious ritual. Although the footage is not live, the film is edited in real time, with artificially intelligent ‘editors’ collecting data from a large copper telephone pole-like sensor near the exhibition opening. This sensor monitors everything from the number of guests in the gallery to the weather outside, and the Camata images are edited accordingly.

Yet curator Anne Stenne clarifies that this is not a simple case where “x” leads to “y” – for example, if there were only one person in the exhibition, it would not be the case that the AI ​​editors would automatically say, choose footage which was recorded at night. This means that while the endless editing process is fascinating – after all, you could sit there for the entire exhibition and never see the same sequence twice – as a layperson it is difficult to understand why AI was a necessary element. Would the work look different if the montage were randomly generated? As a regular viewer it is very difficult to know that.

Those who visit these exhibitions simply have to trust that something fantastic is happening behind the scenes. Although Huyghe’s sensors are visible throughout the exhibition, the artist does not want to share the details of the program that processes this information and how exactly it works. A representative says: “Pierre does not want to concentrate on the technical parameters of his works. He wants to concentrate on the visitor’s experience.” The public may find this disturbing in a world where companies use “pseudo-AI” that is actually managed by hidden people behind the scenes.

AI art works best when it does something the artist couldn’t do alone, as is the case with Huyghe’s self-generating language. Anything else runs the risk of feeling gimmicky at best and pointless at worst. Either way, the AI ​​trend will continue to sweep the galleries, and soon the tool will be so commonplace that questioning it will be like questioning a pen or a pencil.

In the 1960s, ‘computer art’ conquered the world, with exhibitions from London to Stuttgart, from Zagreb to Las Vegas. A contemporary writer said, “A computer may never make a painting all by itself,” and cautiously noted that “at least one expert thinks such art represents a truly new art form.” One day, discussions about AI’s place in art will undoubtedly sound so archaic.

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