Augmented Imagination: Machine Learning Art as Automatism

Left: Trevor Paglen. A Man (Corpus: The Humans) Adversarially Evolved Hallucination
Right: Sascha Pohflepp. Spacewalk: Carnivores 3, Generation 320.

Machine Learning Art and Surrealism

The works remind me of the paintings and drawings of Surrealist artist Max Ernst. Surrealists like Ernst sought to resolve the — in their opinion — previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality [3]. They borrowed techniques from psychoanalysis to stimulate their art, believing that “the creativity that came from deep within a person’s subconscious could be more powerful and authentic than any product of conscious thought” [4].

Left: Max Ernst. Wizard Woman. 1941. United States
Right: Max Ernst. The Angel of the home or the Triumph of Surrealism. 1937. Paris, France

What do Surrealist Automatism and Machine Learning Art have in common?

MLA does not adhere the Surrealist movement, but its techniques. The Surrealist artist’s toolbox features a whole range of “automatisms” — techniques for making art that poke the subconscious, so to speak. In physiology, the term automatism describes automatic bodily movements. We usually don’t consciously control our breathing, for example, and that is what automatisms are supposed to achieve for making art [9]: “Pure psychic automatism … the dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason and outside all moral or aesthetic concerns” [3]

In this video Max Ernst demonstrates his use of frottage.
fig.1 — Frottage process
fig.2 — machine learning art process

Machine Learning as a tool for imaginaries

Max Ernst published his experiments with frottage in a 1926 publication titled ‘Histoire Naturelle’. The drawings in the series aren’t just rubbings that leave the interpretation to the viewer. We see fantastic landscapes and creatures — rendered with the precision of scientific illustration — inspired by what Ernst saw in a piece of wood. [8] The frottage was the start of a process rather than the end of one.

Max Ernst. The Fugitive (L’Évadé) from Natural History (Histoire Naturelle). C. 1925, published 1926 © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris


[1] Hebron, Patrick. “Rethinking Design Tools in the Age of Machine Learning.” April 26, 2017. Accessed December 03, 2017.



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