Creativity is not just for humans. Artworks generated by artificial intelligence have captured the imagination of spectators and collectors alike. But is this really the future of contemporary art? The introduction of technology in the arts is becoming an important issue in this historical period, where changes and developments are happening faster than expected. Museums and institutions, and not only artists, have been addressing the issue to find solutions during the recent forced closures due to the pandemic.
by Giacomo Donati. Illustrations by Adan Flores
In recent months, there has been an increasing number of initiatives in the art world, at both institutional and private levels, that have been made possible by technological developments, especially in the field of artificial intelligence.
In 2021, with the Michelangelo AI project, the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence has combined technology and culture; the audience could approach the great master of the Renaissance through a platform with chat messaging in English, where the computer will answer all questions and curiosity impersonating Michelangelo. The project was developed in collaboration with Querlo, Customized Artificial Intelligence Solutions, a New York-based company that helps cultural institutions and companies introduce digitization using sophisticated technologies.1
The algorithm transforms itself into a human brain to continue to entertain at a time when art cannot be experienced and “touched” up close. This educational and constructive project brings Michelangelo back to life, more than 500 years after his birth on March 6, 1475. Institutions will have more and more opportunities to develop systems to make new experiences visible. An art that becomes more immediate and aware of the potential of technology.
This technological process opens a reflection on the boundaries of human consciousness and those of the machine. We enter into a game of imitation of the myth, the character and the history of art. It is not only entertainment, but also a project on the ethics of memory and consciousness. A project that remains in an intermediate zone, that brings back to life the mind and the words of a genius, with his complicated psychology, leaving out his body. The machine is a transformer of reality, but it cannot in this case regenerate the human being. This application shows the limits of technology, making the virtual conversation with Michelangelo look like a banal experience for tourists rather than for the artist’s scholars. Michelangelo becomes more of a symbol of the city of Florence and appears less like a Renaissance genius.
Going back a few years, we can find a turning point in the art world. We are in Christie’s auction house in New York on October 23, 2018. A mysterious work titled Edmond de Belamy, depicting a French gentleman, dressed in dark clothing, with a romantic and melancholic air that harks back to the past, is sold for nearly half a million dollars.2 The painter with the unknown identity is not actually human and his signature is nothing more than the algebraic formula of the algorithm with which the painting was created. Edmond de Belamy is the first-ever work created by artificial intelligence to be auctioned and sold.
As it turns out, the authors are however humans: they are the Obvious Parisian art collective. They created the work using the Generative Adversarial Network (GAN) algorithm, gathering and recombining information from 15,000 portraits for art history databases. Consisting of a two-part algorithm, the generator and the discriminator, the system was fed by a dataset of portraits painted between the 14th and 20th centuries. Its young inventor, American Ian Goodfellow, calls it a “police and thieves” game. The generator acts almost like a forger, while the discriminator has the task of identifying any “fakes” generated. Another interesting use of GANs is to create realistic photographs of faces of people who don’t exist, starting from an appropriate number of real images.
However, contemporary artists don’t often see technology as an improvement of our existence, but rather as a dangerous tool that limits our lives, and especially our privacy. We have seen that artificial intelligence can help curators and institutions and it can even generate art. It can accelerate development for the future, but it can make us forget the present. Automation also involves some moral and ethical limits, and many multimedia artists are beginning to use new technologies more and more as a weapon for social criticism and protest and to raise awareness of the issue. The human being, the artist, uses the artificial mind to reveal their incompleteness. In her multimedia video installations, German artist Hito Steyerl addresses the important theme of surveillance and tracking technologies– amplified during the pandemic – which can be used to limit our freedom of thought, for instance when used to identify people during demonstrations.
Steyerl envisions a future that will be dominated by digital stupidity, as she calls it.3 A disastrous era where human beings will be continuously replaced by entities built by algorithms. The frenetic nature of the world and consumption is leading to this kind of future. Her art focuses precisely on the relationships between machines, artificial intelligence, and authoritarianism. An example is her work SocialSim (2020); in one scene, a white policeman represented by numerous computer-generated avatars states that he is “basically working for [his] own elimination.”4
A pessimistic reflection where even the avatar fails to save society and the role of authorities, with fear and criticism of the errors that machines can make, complicating our existence even more. Our task then becomes to recognise the potential of the technological problem. The human mind and brain are often represented as a metaphor for intelligence. Robotic and artificial ones, on the other hand, are seen as perfect entities that cannot make mistakes. With technological growth, however, they also becomes weaker and more human; they can make mistakes and we have recently discovered that they can also be creative and make art. In the future, surely, they will also be able to curate and select works within an exhibition. A future where human and robotic entities mix and will no longer recognise each other, computers hiding inside bodies with human features. A kind of society that will risk no longer being able to provoke and therefore lose its motivation to make art.
1. Michelangelo Lives Again Thanks to Artificial Intelligence. Opera magazine, 4 March 2021 [Online] Available at https://duomo.firenze.it/en/opera-magazine/post/5655/michelangelo-lives-again-thanks-to-artificial-intelligence [Accessed 20 June 2021]
2. Quackenbush, C. (2018) A Painting Made by Artificial Intelligence Has Been Sold at Auction for $432,500. Time [Online] Available at https://time.com/5435683/artificial-intelligence-painting-christies/ [Accessed 20 June 2021]
3. See Segal, N. (2021) Prediction in the Era of Digital Stupidity: Hito Steyerl [Online] Available at https://flash—art.com/article/hito-steyerl/ [Accessed 20 June 2021]