Explorations of AI Art — Episode 14
[This interview has been previously published on Cueva Gallery’s blog on March 20, 2020]
“I aim for pushing boundaries and creating dialog between sometimes distant domains.” — Paul Mouginot
“As for the use of GANs and other generative algorithms, I am interested in understanding whether they can help us explore spaces and dimensions never seen before, and question what should be the contribution of a contemporary artist.” — Anis Gandoura
Paul Mouginot and Anis Gandoura already lived few lives. They are both engineers and started working together a few years ago, as strategy consultants. In 2016 they co-founded (with a third colleague and friend) a start-up called daco, later acquired by Veepee, with the idea of helping retailers to achieve growth through a deep knowledge of their competitors. The start-up leveraged the power of AI and image recognition to gain insightful information about competitors’ strategy, offer, pricing, discount and store network, classifying products and making them comparable.
Their working partnership has not been limited to business: indeed an equal interest in art and science pushed them to pursue also an artistic collaboration that led to the creation of the collective Aurèce Vettier. The duo is based in Paris and investigates the space between real and imaginary. Their interest in expanding the creativity of both humans and machines pushes the concepts of creator and created, process and practice, leaving room for fascinating discussions between art, engineering and a territory still unexplored but capable of surprising. As Anis explains to me: “[…] AI is the only tool able to encompass more information than its creator.[…]The potential is thus infinite […] we plan to interact with the models, bend them, play with the outputs and more importantly, project everything in the real space.”
Aurèce Vettier’s artistic practice revolves around computers, algorithms and AI as much as chisels or pastels. The new forms that come to life from the data used in a project are projected back into reality with a meticulous precision that denotes great attention to detail and delicacy in the realization. It is about falling in love with a beautiful imperfection that moves from its artificial form to its material one, carrying harmony and balance never seen before.
Paul and Anis challenge the creative process with a double approach: first they tweak the interaction between man and machine reaching new forms, then they combine craftsmanship and technology in a very distinctive and almost obsessive way. They have created a unique collection for Cueva Gallery called A Rebours, with references to the decadent literature of the late 1800s and to the mal du siècle. The edition presented for Cueva Gallery is part of Aurèce Vettier’s Potential Herbariums series and shows a continuity between past and present, but focuses also on a future that can be co-created with the use of the latest technologies. Their work pushes the interaction between the human artist and the digital one far beyond the collaboration we are used to.
I had the pleasure to speak with them and grasp the essence of their work that I want to share here.
Beth: [Paul] During your years in engineering school you have created a fashion photography atelier and started to collaborate with several fashion magazines and high-end brands. I quote you when I say that you have been able to create the job of your dreams bringing together fashion, technology and business. Can you tell us more about this background that first led to the creation of daco and now brings you to explore Artificial Intelligence in poetry and visual art?
Paul: Since the beginning I followed a very hybrid path, with an equal interest in art and science. In everything I do, I aim for pushing boundaries and creating dialog between sometimes distant domains. When I met Anis a long time ago, I found an even more hybrid profile able to almost “live” mathematics and give them a form of physical existence, which has inspired me ever since. Today, as we see our artistic practice as a form of research and development for life, prolonging our common experience we have had since daco foundation.
Beth: [Anis and Paul] What brought you together in the first place and what kind of projects are you looking forward to working on?
Anis: We are both friends and working partners, and are both passionate about combining the latest ideas in mathematics and art. It is crucial for us to think about our practice, to give a genuine meaning to our use of technologies. When it comes to our use of Artificial Intelligence, we constantly observe the latest induced developments not only in art and society, but also in philosophy, industry, healthcare… In my future works, I would like to achieve major societal and environmental impact. As for the use of GANs and other generative algorithms, I am interested in understanding whether they can help us explore spaces and dimensions never seen before, and question what should be the contribution of a contemporary artist. Some say: “everything has been found, thought or created.” We believe it is only the beginning.
Paul: As Anis said, we’ve been friends for a long time, we work a lot together and I must say it is a bliss. What brought us together is the fact that the combination of our respective know-hows helps us expand our understanding of many problems and while doing so, we have a lot of fun and laugh all the time!
Beth: [Anis and Paul] As an artist collective you investigate the space of collaboration between humans and machines, between real and imaginary, trying to discover how this interaction is expanding the creative capacity of both. During our chat, I understood that when it comes to the practice the process is not important, but what really matters is the possibility of realizing a better creative interaction in order to deliver something of greater quality. What have you discovered so far working on your latest projects Potential Herbariums and poetry?
Paul: The process is not important, but the practice is. The works we produce are the result of a number of forth-and-back trips between the “real” space that we all share, where we can draw, paint, sculpt, break, erase; and the “data” space, where we can play with more dimensions than we can cope with. In this data space, which can involve AI algorithms or heavy mathematical processing we expand the possibilities, explore new forms that we can project back in reality. We then provide new propositions, at the cost of accepting to lose a little bit of information when projecting back in the real space. At the time we speak, it seems to be quite a unique approach we’ve not really seen elsewhere. It is very difficult as this requires both a lot of thinking and a lot of manual work. With Anis, we often say that we work fast and slow at the same time: of course, it is possible to generate in a few hours many propositions and ideas using GANs. However, achieving the final piece, finding the right equilibrium, pushing ourselves to reach maximal quality can sometimes take us months.
So if I had to sum up in one sentence what we discovered so far, it is the fact that the path between a generative trial and an artwork we accept to make public, is a long path. Being slow helps us be precise and delicate.
Anis: For instance, when we started working on Potential Herbariums we gathered many images from existing herbariums worldwide, but also created our own, by collecting thousands of plants and flowers in the French mountains of Savoie. Over time, it was quite astonishing to see that the “imaginary plants” generated by our GANs, that we used as raw material in our works, were almost following an anti-Darwinian path. Indeed, we found circular or cut stems, immense leaves with only fragile hooks, and more generally, vegetal forms that would not have been able to survive in our known nature. We were quite frightened, as this looked like what plants would transform into, if they had chosen to give up on us, and silently leave our world. This is reflected in the exclusive edition A Rebours we proposed for Cueva Gallery.
Beth: [Paul] Your interests are varied, but I know that between them art and culture play an important role. You are also an art collector: how is this influencing your artistic practice and interests?
Paul: Art and culture play the central role in my existence and being a collector is just a part of this process. I started buying art pieces when I was in my twenties -it was risky because I had absolutely no money at the time. In my mind, my understanding of art and mathematics problems have always been similar, looking like trees with deep ramifications.
I was already spending a lot of time visiting museums, galleries, artist studios and already had the desire to create and share. But to be relevant in a context of “oversupply”, with so many artists producing so many works, I felt it was too early for me to deploy anything. So I kept deep-diving in art and history, read and observed, silently assisted artists to produce their works, documented exhibitions for ‘Purple Magazine’, extensively wrote art reviews, and started acquiring pieces.
Living with art pieces you carefully chose is a unique experience, far more intense than the visit of an exhibition in a white cube space. When I wake up in the morning, when I work with my girlfriend Katarzyna in our atelier, I feel their energy.
Our practice at Aurèce Vettier is infused with this approach, because even if modern technologies are involved, our works in some way acknowledge what we know about the past and the present, about what was done before. Some of our works, such as the Colorimeters (After Ravenne) are for instance a direct, assumed tribute to abstract oil-pastels by Aurélie Nemours, and our recent editions A Rebours reference the novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans.
Beth: [Anis and Paul] Can you tell us more about the Colorimeters (After Ravenne) ?
Anis: While working on our Potential Herbariums, we used our own dried plants, but also a vast number of old herbariums with comments by botanists and colorimeters. We found out that, while generating imaginary plants and flowers, our GANs were also generating their own colorimeters. These miniature color palettes had nothing to do anymore with those present on our herbarium datasets: the color squares were now slightly deformed, with new proportions, and almost had an existence of their own.
Paul: What stroke us was the beautiful imperfection, harmony and equilibrium beaming from all of these colorimeters. So we decided to see them as a valid proposition to be reproduced on paper with our imperfect hands. Anis worked hard on the GAN images; in the meantime, I spent three months learning oil pastel techniques and color theory, before starting to reproduce these fragile colorimeters with oil pastel on thick paper.
Beth: [Paul] Do you think that the so-called AI Art needs to be contextualized in art history?
Paul: It is a crucial question and I tried to ask it recently during a conference in February 2020 about generative art at Centre Pompidou. I think it is not our place as artists to answer this global question: time, in the end, will sort and clarify everything. However, as said before, within Aurèce Vettier we constantly try to think about our practice and anchor it not necessarily in the global tree of art history, but rather connect to a local group of branches we feel we are somehow related to. Currently in AI Art, I witness a lot of debates about who did what in the first place, and honestly makes me feel sometimes a bit uncomfortable.
At Aurèce Vettier, our creative reservoir is internal, we use computers, algorithms and AI as much as we use pastels, or chisels. Except for very specific painters, such as Niele Toroni, the fact that one type of brush or another was used has no importance. The fact that one type dataset or algorithm was used has no importance. What matters is the energy of the outcome: does our work speak for itself? Are we ready to defend it with all your heart ? Do we want to live with it forever? And as you, as collectors, acquire our work, the questions remain: does our work speak for itself? Are you ready to defend it with all your heart ? Do you want to live with it forever?
Beth: [Anis] Some artists believe that Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence are not just a tool or a process, but a means of exploring the concepts they are working on in a way that could not be done differently. Do you feel the same? Can ML and AI accentuate the human sense in the relationship between physical and digital?
Anis: AI is a tool, indeed, but induces a fundamentally different approach compared to the existing tools we know. When an inventor comes up with a new tool, the amount of information contained in the new tool -such as the number of operations to carry out, the hypotheses to test, the processes to follow, the know-hows to accumulate- is finite but also limited. Why? Because the inventor himself limits the amount of information transferred to the tool. But AI is the only tool able to encompass more information than its creator. Alan Turing was among the first to state that a program able to encapsulate more information than its creator would only exist if it was self-learning. The potential is thus infinite and beyond trying to apply different models, we plan to interact with the models, bend them, play with the outputs and more importantly, project everything in the real space.
Beth: In a previous interview, Aurèce Vettier said that “The machine generates a gangue in which I find treasure, I extract it and assemble it with my sensitivity and human limitations”. I find this quote very poetic and illustrative of the fact that human-machine interaction can return something profound. Is the interweaving of art and technology a way to rediscover our past and perhaps also a way to discover something new about ourselves?
Paul: This quote refers to the work we did with our poetry book Elegia Machina. To create this book, we indeed collected and assembled little treasure verses found in ‘gangues’, generated with Markov chains algorithms. Elegia Machina was a founding act for Aurèce Vettier because at the time we started the experiment with gangues, we were not sure it would yield a relevant outcome, something worth reading.
It took us six months to converge on 57 poems, and here is one of them, called le jardin et les vergers:
“forgetting our strange power
we were admiring the fiery waters
from our curved eyelids
at this moment
we were still owners of the ricochet foam
in the direction of the great desert
where snow turns blue”
Beth: [Paul] About the series Potential Herbariums, you said: “we are not collaborating with the machine because we fear constraints. On the contrary, we are gently trying to reach the border, the intersection of the real, sensual world and that, no less poetic, in which machines dream.” If your work is beyond collaboration, but aims to establish a process for “an encounter between a certain exhaustiveness and a beautiful imperfection”, what kind of doors will be opened?
Paul: I hope we can come closer to an ideal of relevance, nuance, refinement, erudition, poetry, sometimes silence, but also randomness and extravaganza. Maybe will we succeed, maybe not. But again: at the end of the day, practice is what matters.
Thank you Anis and Paul for this insightful chat and for explaining how Aurèce Vettier is pushing the boundaries of creativity and the interaction between humans and machines.
To follow and contact Aurèce Vettier:
E-mail: aurece.vettier[at]gmail.com ∎
Resources and References
“Aurèce Vettier” by Sophie Abriat, on the print edition of the magazine “Exhibition”
About the author: Beth Jochim is the Creative AI Lead at Libre AI, and Director and Co-Founder at Cueva Gallery. She works at the intersection of technology and arts. She is actively involved in different activities that aim to democratize the field of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, bringing the benefits of AI/ML to a larger audience. Connect whit Beth in LinkedIn or Twitter.