Artists explore AI

Adjusting to technological developments is not a new concept for the art world.

Wood panels were once the standard for paintings, but by the 17th century they were largely overtaken by canvas, and the paint itself changed, too. Video art, a mainstay now, was a new phenomenon in the 1960s.

More recently, augmented reality and virtual reality have captured the imagination of artists as ways to tell stories that we could not have imagined even 20 years ago.

"They Took the Faces From the Accused and the Dead … (SD18)," a grid of 3,240 mug shots, by Trevor Paglen. It is part of the show "Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI" at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.

But the rise of artificial intelligence in art, a phenomenon in recent years, has a different cast to it. Not only is AI a tool for artists, who are employing machine intelligence in fascinating ways, it is also frequently a topic to be examined — sometimes in the same piece.

And underlying many of the works is a deep unease. As Lisa Phillips, the director of New York’s New Museum, put it, the worries come down to “the prospect that machines are going to take over.” She added, “What are we unleashing?”

Even the art market was alerted to a new realm when an AI-generated portrait that was initiated by the Paris-based art collective Obvious was sold for $432,500 at Christie’s in 2018. It was like a traditional portrait of a man, but his features were smudged and blurry.

Museums and other exhibition spaces have also produced a flurry of current and coming shows involving AI that were scheduled for this spring, some of them delayed after closings because of the coronavirus pandemic.

They include a survey of the subject, “Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI,” at the de Young Museum in San Francisco scheduled through Oct. 25; “Future Sketches,” which was on view earlier this year at Artechouse Washington and is intended to move to Artechouse’s Miami space later this year; Trevor Paglen’s photography at the Altman-Siegel Gallery in San Francisco; and “Ed Atkins: Get Life/Love’s Work” scheduled for the New Museum from June 24 to Sept. 27.

Paglen is one of the best-known artists in the AI territory. His work on it, and on the subject of state surveillance, helped him win a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellowship (the “genius” grant) in 2017.

“I’ve been working on it for a while,” Paglen said.

“Once I started thinking about it, I haven’t stopped.” He is based in New York, where he has two of his three studios; the other is in Berlin.

His work at Altman-Siegel tries to connect the surveying of the American West in the 19th century with the way computers perceive the world via the data they are given — how what is officially “seen” creates power dynamics.

Paglen has a work in “Uncanny Valley,” too, called “They Took the Faces From the Accused and the Dead … (SD18),” a grid of 3,240 mug shots, used without the subjects’ consent, from the American National Standards Institute, a nonprofit group founded in 1918 that helps set agreed-upon standards across industries, including a wide array of tech fields.

The images were used to train facial-recognition programs, and Paglen uses them to question “how is data weaponized,” he said.

It has been a theme for other artists, too: Because machines have to be trained by people, what implicit biases are being passed on along the way?

“We live in a world in which things are being sorted into categories that are not inherent in nature,” Paglen said.

In addition to critiquing AI, Paglen has used it to create art. For his 2017 series “Adversarially Evolved Hallucinations,” he created an AI system that made a series of images.

“I was making my own training sets,” he said. “I built the taxonomies from scratch.” The resulting works, including a view of what a computer thinks a man looks like, may strike some as a bit spooky.

The organizer of “Uncanny Valley,” Claudia Schmuckli — the chief contemporary curator at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, which includes the de Young — said that in her view, the overall tone of the works in “Uncanny Valley,” which features the work of 14 artists or collectives, was one of “concern, rather than anxiety.”

“A lot of the works in this show look at AI as an applied form of machine learning, how it actually works, not the speculative fantasy of AI,” she said. “It may be that not a lot of deep thinking has occurred about the potential consequences in the long run.”

Schmuckli moved from Houston to San Francisco in 2016, and she said it was partly the postelection revelations about hacking, Facebook and the data firm Cambridge Analytica that got her thinking. “I felt like this was an area I needed to urgently understand,” she said.

In the tech-focused Bay Area, the show has hit a nerve.

“The turnout for the opening was wholly amazing,” Schmuckli said. “We saw a lot of people who have never stepped foot in this museum before.”

The for-profit exhibition space Artechouse, with branches in New York, Washington and Miami, focuses exclusively on the nexus of art and tech, as its name suggests.

“We thought it was a niche that needed to be filled,” said co-founder Tati Pastukhova. Since its founding in 2017, about half of its shows have touched on AI in some way.

The latest such exhibition, “Future Sketches,” is a collaboration with Zach Lieberman, an artist who is also an adjunct associate professor at MIT’s Media Lab (his university bio also calls him a “hacker”).

Perhaps befitting a full-time techie, his work has a more positive spin than that of some others working with AI. His Artechouse piece “Expression Mirror,” originally created for the 2018 London Design Biennale, reads the facial expressions of a user, tracking muscle movements at 68 points on the face.

But when people look at the “mirror,” they do not see themselves. “Your face is replaced with someone’s face who has used it before,” Lieberman said. “It matches your expressions, like a smile or frown, and it learns as it interacts.” He calls this a “face action coding system,” a version of a “fingerprint.”

Lieberman said he understood why some artists plumbed the dark side of AI, because of its long-term implications and because anything to do with machines could unsettle.

“It’s this black box that you feed things into,” he said. “It’s inscrutable in some way.”

But Lieberman said he encouraged a diversity of views on matters technological. “I think it’s important to create artworks for the public to have all kinds of conversations — be they critical or playful or anything else.”

Artechouse’s other founder, Sandro Kereselidze, struck a similar note.

“Everything in the world has a positive and negative side,” he said, adding that “it’s in our power” to explore both sides of AI.

“As long as we can find the off button on the computer.”

Posted by Jai Ponnappan