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  • Writer's pictureVivienne Boucherat

BLOG 49: The Art of the Machine

Change is inevitable! - In every part of our lives, change is inevitable!

I was introduced to something new and ‘remarkable’ last week(1) and was reminded that nothing stands still. This advance is quite specific and, for the moment, only really relates to the world of visual art – but the implications are potentially massive and unpredictable.

First, a tiny (and noncomprehensive) look at art history!

The field of art has always been bombarded with change - new products and inventions, new techniques and styles, new fashions and attitudes. In more recent years of course, a lot of these changes can be attributed to advances in digital technology.

We are never compelled to change the way we work of course, but new ways of creating work will always challenge the artist, either enabling and accelerating a way forward or, to whatever extent, negating a style or process. The ‘shock of the new’ has always caused an evolution.

Right now though, we are being introduced to yet another extraordinary layer of possibilities – and this is what I was introduced to last week - the development of a programme, showcasing Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) digital text to image generation technology.(4) (A.I. is basically technology instructing itself).

Let’s go back a bit!

In Europe, in the early to mid-Italian Renaissance period (late 13th to early 16th century), the great painters, such as Giotto, Botticelli and Raphael, were using egg tempera(1) to paint their masterpieces. However, in early 15th century, Flemish painter Jan van Eyck popularised oil painting(2) in early Northern European Renaissance art.

Oil paint replaced egg tempera as the medium of choice. This may not seem so radical to us now, but it revolutionised the world of painting.

Later came mechanical inventions. In 1436 came the introduction of the printing press(3) causing the Printing Revolution speeding up the dissemination of ideas in all spheres. Mechanical printers gave way to electronic and laser technology. Fast forward to today and we think nothing of having electronic printers in our homes and 3D printers are commonplace.

The next big upheaval in art came, of course, with the camera, which had a profound effect on everything inside and outside of the art world. (Cameras became available to the public from around 1913).

Photography forced a deeper response from artists. Painting was no longer the only means of recording events, artistic imaginations were set free to explore non-representational and abstract ideas. Photography enabled the careful study of light, shadow and space and whole art ‘Movements’ appeared - Impressionism, Cubism, Expressionism, Surrealism.

Eadweard Muybridge was an English artist and photographer (he had a VERY interesting life story if you ever get the chance to read about him!) whose photographs of animals in motion, taken in the 1870’s, showed the world movements that had been invisible to the naked eye. His work straddled the worlds of art, science, photography and film.

Photography itself became ‘art’ and caused great divisions in opinion about ‘what art is’.

Again – fast forward to today and we are all photographers! Or are we? We carry phones and take hundreds of digital pictures whenever we want to! Does this downgrade the art of photography? Is the value of photography diminished? And in the eyes of whom?

Back in the world of non-photographic image making, for decades now we have had digital applications and tools at our disposal which can save us weeks of experimental ‘analogue’ work if we choose to utilise them – but in a sense – it is still the artist using the tool.

So – on to A.I. digital text to image generation technology -

Here is how it works – think of anything you would like to see as a picture. Type in the relevant words of text (called prompts) into the computer programme. Artificial Intelligence will then go about the business of collating and compiling a visual mesh of the words and ideas you have listed and presents you with a ‘response’. Ta-dah! You have made a work of art!

You can ask A.I. to borrow the techniques of any artist, living or dead, and, mimicking their techniques and styles and applying them to your melange of subject matter, you now have your own, unique, copyright-free visual image! You can alter a few quality parameters and the same list of words will not create the same image twice! In the spirit of exploration, I tried my hand at ‘Dream Studio’. Here are two images generated from the identical simple list of prompts, I have not even included any action ideas here, but you can if you wish:

“Stormy ocean, Picasso and Matisse, trees, numbers, lion, map, sunset, stars”

The process makes you think in an entirely different way. A.I. is ‘doing the creating’ or ‘making the interpretation’ for you via digital image processing systems and algorithms – it is a fascinating and disturbing process. I would argue that it doesn’t give you the visceral sense of fulfilment that you get from having an idea, or feeling, finding a way to physically make an image from yourself - and communicating your vision. This makes sense to me but in my experience, people rarely care HOW an image is created.

The age-old question of ‘What is Art?’ seems so insignificant in this context but I am sure it will rumble on for as long as humans are around. I am not making a value judgment here, (and I actually really like these two images that I ‘made’), but the potential implications and applications of this radical development are simply endless.

There is a knee-jerk reaction of both fear and awe. Even starting to think about the possible applications of this technology makes my brain fizz! The questions of human redundancy, copyright issues or what the value of these images might be, only scratch the surface!

We know the camera can lie, that virtual reality can fool our brains and that technological progress never stops. It is easy to start wondering just who will end up in charge here?

Oh well, lovely people, I’m just off to find a stick of charcoal!!

(1)Thankyou to Matthew White who introduced me to a programme called ‘Dream Studio’ – you can look yourself at:

(2)Egg tempera is first thought to have been used in Egypt around the first century BC

(3)In 2008, Buddhist murals created in oil paint and dating from the seventh century, were discovered in caves in Bamiyan, Afghanistan – so van Eyck did not invent it, but popularised it in the 1400’s.

(4)Though evidence of woodblock printing onto silk has been found in China dating back to 220 AD, the development of the printing press is generally credited to Johannes Gutenberg (Germany) in around 1436 - and the Printing Revolution began.

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