Does AI Art Belong in the Physical, Digital, or Crypto World?

AI Art is mesmerizing. The best of it forces us to reconsider how our own perception works, and by extension our minds. Beyond that it exists in the purely digital domain which forces us to reconsider what the artwork is, and by extension how the artworld works. My recent experience with the purchase of a colleagues AI CryptoArt piece has me rethinking my own work as well as some of my long held beliefs regarding the artworld.

AI-GENERATED PAINTING BY ROBBIE BARRAT FOR BUSINESSWEEK

You need to look no further than fellow AI artists Mario Klingman, Mike Tyka, and Robbie Barrat to see some inspirational examples of AI Art. In this piece by Barrat, he is using a specific type of neural network called a GAN to generate and blend landscapes into one another. There is something familiar and exciting about watching this as our minds are confused by the change and comforted by the tranquil landscapes. What exactly is happening in between? The familiarity of this image is difficult to pinpoint. But perhaps it is not the image itself but the fact that it is being created by a process that has some similarities to how our own neurons work. Perhaps its familiarity is not in the imagery, but how the images transition.

AI Generated Nude Portrait #5, Robbie Barrat, 2018

In this second piece by Barrat, of which I am now the proud owner, his neural networks referenced thousands of nudes to reimagine the classical genre. The result is once again familiar, but also grotesque, but most of all confusing. I see both something that vaguely resembles an erotic image, and at the same time looks clearly like a mother holding a child.

I mentioned that I purchased this piece, both because there is a certain pride in ownership when one buys art, but also because it has made me reconsider my understanding of art ownership. The reason for this is that this artwork is purely digital. It cannot be held and even though I did purchase it, I have nothing to show for my purchase, not even a print. Perhaps fittingly, the currency I used to make the purchase cannot be held either. I bought this artwork with Ethereum on the CryptoArt exchange superrare.co. Nothing physically changed hands, just the blockchain transaction, the record of a unique immutable token representing the artwork being transferred from Barrat’s Ethereum wallet to mine.

So I own it and can even sell it, but nothing has been transferred to me physically. Despite this, I surprisingly feel the same pride in ownership that I experienced with many of my other art purchases. That was unexpected.

As I have mentioned, I am also an AI Artist. I bring this up again because unlike the purely digital path many of my colleagues are taking, I am still interested in creating unique artifacts in the physical space that humans inhabit. If you follow my work, you will know that I achieve this by programming one of my many painting robots to make marks on a traditional stretched canvas with traditional pigments. All the while I have them watch their own progress and use a potpourri of AI, deep learning and feedback loops to try and make the paintings as compelling as possible. My robots practice on classical reproductions, paint stylized portraits, and even make unique works with varying degrees of abstraction.

I am not alone in the effort to create a robotic artist. Every year artists from around the world submit work for consideration in the $100,000 Robot Art Competition. The only rule of the contest is that each mark has to be made by a robot with a paintbrush. Anything else goes. More than 600 artifacts have been painted over the years with styles ranging from pure abstraction to photorealism. Five of the entries in this year’s competition can be seen below.

From left to right, the artist’s responsible for these robot paintings were Joanne Hastie of Canada, A-Roboto of Japan, AI Visionary Hod Lipson of NYC, HHS of California, and Robert Todonai of Australia.

Like all things technology related in 2018, AI has become increasingly important in the competition. Many of the top entries, mine included, used AI in some form or another. In contrast to the purely digital AI Art discussed earlier, however, these robots have brought these algorithms into the material world.

Lindenmayer and Deussen’s eDavid working on Self Portrait

Beyond the conceptual significance of this, it has also allowed for feedback loops where the robots could observe and react to the artwork they were creating. Lindenmayer and Deussen’s eDavid of Germany is a master of this technique. Here it is painting a self portrait, watching and adjusting with every stroke to maximize error reduction. My robots also work to achieve this effect. They are sloppy and often splatter paint all over the canvas. This presents an opportunity for serendipity as the unexpected marks interfere with what my AI was planning. This forces my robots to readjust as they accidentally make errant marks, in some cases changing their artistic direction entirely. Reacting to the unexpected derivations that arise in the execution of the painting allows for a richer generative algorithm, something that is impossible in deterministic code.

For this and several others reasons, giving my AI Art a physical manifestation has long been my focus. Its advantages have been so obvious to me, that I have never even considered the alternative of working in a purely digital medium. This view changed, however, when I bought Barrat’s AI Generated Nude Portrait #5. Unexpectedly, it felt like purchasing an actual object. This is an emotional assessment so I don’t know how to explain it other than to just say that it was as meaningful to me as any of my other art purchases. Having experienced this, I opened myself up to the possibility of taking advantage of CryptoArt to return some of my AI paintings to a purely digital existence.

Beginning with these three AI generated pieces of art, which were awarded First Place in Robot Art 2018, I will be photographing then destroying select pieces. Upon their destruction, I will be uploading a high resolution image of them into the Ethereum blockchain as an immutable crypto token. At this point the only manifestation of the art will be on the Ethereum blockchain. Here it will be a unique piece of art available for purchase, ownership, sale, and resale - just like my physical pieces. The only difference is that they will no longer be tangible. These artworks were formed by code and spent a brief moment in the physical world before returning to code - where they will remain in perpetuity. An unexpected result of this, that I did not realize until just now, is that as tokens on the Ethereum blockchain, these three CryptoArt pieces will probably long outlive much of my physical work.

I do not know the best place to showcase my AI Art, whether it belongs in the physical or digital world, if anywhere. Perhaps it is just a performance piece that starts and concludes with each piece. I am still figuring it out and as I do, I will be converting a small selection of my work to CryptoArt. If you are interested in seeing more of my CryptoArt or the work of some other visionary techno-artists including Barrat, Hackatao, Obvious, and XCOPY, check out superrare.co.

It is a new way to collect art and in turn support the artists making it.

Pindar Van Arman