You’re standing in front of a vertical screen that reflects an image of you. Your brain treats it in the same way it treats a mirror, so you make a silly face. But there’s something odd about your reflection. It’s scattered, showing bits and pieces that compel you to put them in order. You move and position the pieces on the touch screen but the shapes never come together in the way you imagine. When you’re done, you are met with an abstract portrait of yourself.
This is a creative project by NYU student Ellen Nickles, who’s enrolled in the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP). As a photographer, Ellen was interested in working on imagery but wanted to include algorithms in the mix to make an interactive work of art. So, she placed two cameras on either side of a monitor and used an open source software that takes in the feed from the webcams, randomly grabs pixels from all over the plane, and then copies the pixels into different shapes that are constructed in a way that allows the user to activate them and move them around.
Ellen said it was designed to “give people the chance to explore and see themselves from different angles.”
The Inspiration Behind “Painting Mirror”
The inspiration for this work came from a fascination with cubism, the early-20th-century art movement born in Paris. Ellen thought about the way cubist artists attempted to show multiple perspectives of their subjects and wanted to actualize that in a 3D model. Picasso’s work in this style shows the use of geometric planes and shapes, which Ellen copied in her first prototype. She started by fragmenting images into squares. Eventually these squares morphed into complicated polygons. While the work attempts to replicate cubism, it builds on it in a way and offers more complexity to the work.
Instead of easels, goops of paint and linseed oil, the artist deals with code. Lots and lots of code. In the earlier versions of the work, Ellen experimented with something called “area filters” that impact what she called “neighborhoods of pixels” and what they do is blur and sharpen details, creating geometric transformations to the image (or selfie). Ellen manipulated the video feed of her webcam and the result of her work is an interactive cubist self-portrait generator.
If we are going to try to understand the work on its own terms, what are its terms?
This work cannot be critiqued in the same way we think of a painting. Painting Mirror requires the engagement of the viewer to offer a meaningful experience to them. This is why Ellen wanted the experience to be unpredictable, so she played with the way the pieces overlap: some reveal what’s beneath them while others conceal and cover other parts of the image. In a way, the final image can be discarded or posted on social media as a part of a unique experience. The product itself is not important, it’s all about the intentional act of creation.
What I struggle to understand with digital work is how it is valued. Using code as a creative medium in simple terms means creating an algorithm that we are trying to solve for and constructing a structure with specific boundaries and instructions that dictate how the software will run the code. The process can be done using machine learning or deep learning.
Deep learning is where we lose control over the final product and cannot pinpoint exactly what the software did to reach that point. Deep learning can create more complex products and is used when there’s a large amount of data that is difficult to visualize and treat using human intellect.
Machine learning takes the data provided and uses it to create a product over many iterations, so if I feed it images of Monet’s paintings and provide it with a code to generate similar paintings, it will learn how to do it over time by what I reject and what I mark as correct. After a while it will learn by itself based on logic and what it decides has a higher probability of being correct.
If we can create a product or an experience using code, this means that we can replicate it into a thousand copies. While each of these copies will behave in different ways, the core or the essence of the work is still the same. Is it still considered original work or does this dilute its value and authenticity?
Last year, a New York auction house sold a painting that was created using an algorithm for $400,000. It was critiqued as a renaissance painting made by artificial intelligence. We also have digital images sold on blockchain that are valuable because of their scarcity and not their beauty or artistic value.
This leads me to my second question about Ellen’s work and where it exists in the bigger historical context. Can we think of her painting as an extension of cubism or should we look at it as an example of what we can do with processing language and creative coding?
I think “Painting Mirror” offers a window into the duality of human nature. We have a “good” side, the one we show in public and go to great lengths to preserve and polish. And we have a “secret” side that lives in the folds of our minds. It’s a completely different person from the one we show to the world, one that has insecurities, flaws, and regrets. The mirror shows both sides, the good and the bad, and the result is an asymmetrical and volatile image. And in a way that is our true self that we scramble to create and recreate to make sense of our existence.