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The digital age of art – Experiences through data & AI

The influences of new technologies reach deep into the world of art. This goes far beyond topics such as NFTs and blockchain. Christoph Grünberger, designer and expert in the field of data-based design, talks in our interview about the latest trends and how data is being turned into works of art.

 

OLIVER BOSSE SPOKE WITH CHRISTOPH GRÜNBERGER

Algorithms and artificial intelligence are making their way into art and design. Are we talking more about new tools and art forms here, or do these technologies bring fundamental changes for the world of art?

There is definitely more to it than just a bunch of new tools. Algorithms and artificial intelligence have long been topics of interest in the art world. But what used to be merely ridiculed as a by-product of engineers working in a scientific context is now undergoing a paradigm shift. We have come to the point where technology impressively reflects the ideas of media artists and enables new ways of expression and perception that require a new immersive experience. In galleries like “Artechouse” in the States or “Nxt museum” in Europe, visitors can immerse themselves, leave their everyday lives for a short time and be a child again – be astonished.

In addition to this, we see new ways of collecting art: both established galleries like “Sotheby's” in New York or “Galerie König” in Berlin as well as online platforms like “OpenSea” or “Versum” have managed to take NFTs away from profile pictures and make them a trading tool in the art market. This also leads to completely new relationships between artists and collectors: in the field of generative art, it is now possible to let an artwork come into being directly in the process of “minting” it (i.e. creating it as a token on the blockchain) …

Have technologies also changed the way in which artists work?

Definitely. On the one hand, there has been an emancipation of digital art on a broad scale, mainly thanks to blockchain technology. Every digital artist can now create a token alongside every other digital artist and thus offer their artwork to a broad public. On the other hand, the idea of the collective, the group has regained importance especially in the context of NFTs. Nowadays, artworks require an ever-deeper specialization. As artists cannot optimise their skills in all necessary fields, they are increasingly collaborating with each other.

We see this concept of the group in the studios of artists from Random International to Refik Anadol Studio or Quayola. None of them are “solo artists”, they all have a team behind them that helps them produce paramount artworks – industrially created and monetised on the blockchain.

They all have a team behind them that helps them produce paramount artworks – industrially created and monetised on the blockchain.

If a computer can make art – does this diminish the role of humans in the creative process?

No, it doesn’t. In the future, we might provide a computer with the instructions to render a picture. However, the emotional worth of the artwork will still be determined by humans. Furthermore, the connection between the artist and the perceiver remains the focal point. Although algorithms and AI will improve, how the work makes the viewer feel and who stands behind the result is what truly matters.

No doubt the thought of technologies that can do our jobs better than us is unsettling to some. But this development can have positive effects too: picture editing software for example expanded the pool of talented photographers and made it possible for more people to enter the field without spending much money on formal training.

I associate art and design with creativity and the joy of experimentation – to what extent do algorithms and AI fit in with that?

An interesting question. Let's take a step back and look at the development of digital art since the first appearance of computers in the 1960s. Pioneers such as Vera Molnar (*1924) or Karl Gerstner (1930 - 2017) first started to explore how machines could fit into the realms of creativity and art. Molnar e.g. developed a system which she called "machine imaginaire". She imagined having a computer and drew endless lines which she "wove" on paper with minimal offset interference. Gerstner calculated colours for his "Synchromies" which he had his assistants spray-paint on canvas in order to avoid brush-strokes and come as close as possible to the perfection of the computer in production. Both these artists imagined themselves to be a computer and used this as a form of expression.

Nowadays, artists let computers do things and then interpret them from a human point of view. For example, I see a reflection of Molnar's principle on the "human" axis in the works of the media artist Refik Anadol where the theme of "Machine Hallucination" emerges – machines that dream of what was in a way that is yet to come.

Refik Anadol – Machine Hallucinations – Artechouse NY.

 

This also leads to all kinds of mixed forms between these two poles. The Japanese artist Daito Manabe has explored the morphological relationship between man and machine in different ways in his work: "Electric Stimulus to Face" (2016) is a performance that uses sound to create a human facial expression.

Electric Stimulus to Face – Daito Manabe/rhizomatiks.


Sensory muscle stimulation makes the face twitch depending on the sound parameters (a machine impulse interpreted on a human face). In another work, "Morphecore" (2020), Manabe eruptively makes his avatar dance only with thought waves (impulses from human brains interpreted as movements of a machine-generated avatar).

 

Morphecore – Daito Manabe/rhizomatiks – Sonar Festival – All rights reserved.


These works show artists’ ability to involve modern technologies such as AI into their creative processes and make them a part of their joy of experimentation.

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Can you explain in very practical terms how abstract data can be turned into added creative value?

What is thrilling about working with abstract data is that a person's creativity is the only limit to the structures they can create from it. Like building with Legos, you can mold the data in any way you like.

As we have already discussed, today's artists indeed know no limits when it comes to expanding their forms of expression. The real added value, the heart of any work, is how much the viewer is touched by it and what they take away from what they have seen/experienced. In the end, this depends on the narrative, on the idea, on what the artist can imagine, and to what extent this can be realised in order to affect the viewers. Thus, the artist must not reproduce the data as a random mass but recognise and reveal the narrative behind the numbers. No AI can help them with this.

Like building with Legos, you can mold the data in any way you like.

A relatively new trend are text-to-image AI generators like Dall-E 2 from OpenAI or Google Imagen. How do you assess their impact?

I think these text-to-image generators primarily serve the purpose of bringing AI-based art to a wider audience. Their ease of use also achieves emancipation, as anyone can now become an "AI-artist".

What quality the results reach remains doubtful. However, what is interesting to consider, is what this process does with the human who executes it. We are dealing with artificial neural networks which, based on the input of a so-called "prompt" and other parameters, deliver references and allow them to become an image. These results may look like they were created with a painting tool, but they are pure simulations. There is no process-like path from the sketch to the priming to the setting of the highlights. This also means that the "artist" has to work with a black box. They start with a basic definition and then refine and concretise it with the available "U" and "V" buttons. Thus, instead of moving towards a final work of art, previously determined by a sketch, the path is the goal and the AI sets the results for us.

It is a dialogue that takes place here. The “sender” hacks terms and instructions into their Discord window and receives a "work of art” from the “receiver”. In my eyes, this part is the most important: the experience of the human talking to the machine. The former has to learn the latter’s language and receives a more or less disturbing picture in response.

If these tools are used in a professional artistic context like Mario Klingemann or Matt DesLauriers, fully exploiting all possibilities, we already get a preview of what we can expect from this visualization method in the (near) future.

Art will never work without the genius of a human artist, be it AI-art, carpet-art or fresco-art.

From your point of view, what will eventually only be done by computers – and what will creative minds still be needed for?

There is a simple answer to this question: art will never work without the genius of a human artist, be it AI-art, carpet-art or fresco-art. The computer as such will always remain a tool, a means of execution. It cannot carry out a creative process because it lacks spontaneous flashes of inspiration, imagination, and emotion.

What does generative AI mean for your scene?

I think that generative AI in general is currently nothing more than another tool that is not yet fully developed. It still takes too long to train an AI to get presentable results, let alone outstanding ones. However, the topic of “deep fakes” is already creating quite a fuss, as every news outlet has jumped on the bandwagon to warn about AI-related fraud.

The manipulation of audio and video files with AI will certainly be another interesting tool at a later date, which in turn will make the work of artists easier and help them to come to new quantum leaps.

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What other trends and technological developments in your field are you currently following?

What I am currently focusing on is, on the one hand, the field of NFTs with their further activation in the context of the metaverse. On the other hand, everything that has to do with data and entertainment. For example audio-reactive visuals like those of the incredible Joëlle or avant gardist Techno-label DetroitUnderground™.

Joelle – Lost Horizon Festival 2020 – ANNA.


Or the visions of David Sheldon Hicks, CEO of Territory Studio, who, as an SFX-wizard, is driving the further development of data, its visualisation and effect on our everyday life in countless sci-fi blockbusters and other motion pictures.

People like Sheldon-Hicks support the narrative of films in that they visually develop it in order to sensitise the audience to future interfaces. They transport the image from the designers' to the viewers' heads, and at the same time pay attention to the film's plot aesthetics. It is a balancing act to avoid paying more attention to the magic of effects than necessary in order to weave it seamlessly into the action. You could say that there is a parallel reality here in the form of credibly animated interfaces of imaginable technological ideas which, after a while, increasingly cross over into linear reality and manifest themselves and develop further there.


Exclusive image for “The Age of Data” by Territory Studio.


Looking at these two examples, I am interested in the use of data-based design in the so-called post-digital: after all the time that humans have been oriented and bent towards the machine, we are now on the threshold of the next phase. The human being is at the centre and the digital surrounds them imperceptibly in their everyday life, at work, in entertainment.

We are now on the threshold of the next phase: The human being is at the centre and the digital surrounds them imperceptibly in their everyday life, at work, in entertainment.

The use of algorithms and AI doesn't mean that such creations are limited to the digital space though, right? Can you give a few examples of data-driven art that work in or with analog settings?

One example to be highlighted here is a work of the post-digital art group "Random International", founded by Hannes Koch and Florian Ortkrass: "Rain Room" (2012) uses digital sensor technology to create an experience that deals with the question of human existence and places the viewer/user at the centre. When entering the installation, a room in which it is raining, the visitor is packed in a kind of protective bubble in which they cannot get wet, because the rain always stops at the position of movement. This creates an almost symbiotic relationship in an artificially intensified nature which protects the wanderer from the weather on their way through this space. This seemingly intuitive reference is the core of the human-machine communication/relationship of this artwork.

Random International – Rainroom – image by Random International.

 

Another impressive example is Davide Quayola's work. In "Sculpture Factory", he explores the concept of time in the digital process. The Laocoön, a classical statue excavated in Rome in 1506, is extracted from the layers of soil that have been deposited over time. The unfinished, the fragmentary is the subject. Quayola analyses the group of three and creates a 3D model which is also fragmentary and carved out of various blocks by a robot. A temporal compression takes place in that the visitor becomes a witness of the process of shaping, of creating, as it is shown live during the installation.

Quayola – Sculpture Factory – image by Quayola.


You published "The Age of Data," an encyclopedia of data-based design, in which you introduce 40 of the most relevant contemporary protagonists in this field – can you name some of the most exciting projects you include in your book?

This volume focuses on the aesthetics and creativity of a new generation of designers who are using algorithm-supported tools from graphic design to 3D animation, kinetic objects and real-time visuals, to robotics and spatial installations, as well as hybrid approaches between digital and analog.

The Age of Data – Christoph Grünberger – Niggli (2022).


As different as the artists are, as varied is their presentation. In a detailed interview, I talk to Zachary Lieberman about the topic of "Art is Science". We are discussing the metaphor of “Code Poetics”, as it implies an idea being described both in poetics and in coding. One is read – and interpreted – by humans, the other by machines. As Liebermann is a teacher at MIT, we also dive into his concepts of education, one of which is named “Recreating the Past”. It is important for students to understand the aesthetics and the approach of the OGs (i.e., “Original Gangsters”, e.g., Vera Molnar, Muriel Cooper et al.). After analyzing their artworks, students usually try to recreate them with modern tools. This leads us to the question of what support and encouragement is provided to students to create these works. Lieberman is also one of the developers of openFrameworks which was published in 2005. In this context, we also talk about his future vision for the computer as a creativity tool in democratized art.

Zach Lieberman – Shape Study.


Another artist that I included in my book is the Canadian Adam Basanta. In his installation "All we´d need is one another (trio)", we see an independent ecosystem, a golem consisting of two flatbed scanners lying on their side, mindlessly producing artworks by scanning each other. Randomized scan-software settings start automatic scanning processes. The results are analyzed by deep-learning algorithms which are trained on a database of millions of contemporary artworks. When an image is identified to match an existing artwork beyond 80%, it is “validated as art”. Basanta asks, “When the art-making process is performed as a mechanical automation, does the perception of creativity shift to the eye of the beholder?”.

Adam Basanta – All we´d ever need is one another (trio), image by Laura Findlay.


Another example in the book is taken from recent pop-culture: a music video for “Yello” by swiss video artist Dirk Koy. Based on his ongoing series called “Shape Studies”, “Out of Sight” is an investigation of the interface between the real and the digital. Similar to Yello (Dieter Meier and Boris Blank) who often make digital modifications to authentic sound recordings, Koy takes up this idea on the visual level by interweaving natural and digital elements. The result is a dadaistic touch with vegetables and fruits dancing to the music. The rapid changes of form are an allusion to the fleeting nature of the encounter described in the song lyrics.

Yello – Out of Sight – Dirk Koy – Universal Music GmbH.

Randomized scan-software settings start automatic scanning processes. The results are analyzed by deep-learning algorithms which are trained on a database of millions of contemporary artworks.

Are there also people who oppose the use of such technologies in the world of art and design? What do you tell them?

There will always be people who have a certain attitude of rejection. And even in my bubble, I can see that data and AI do not represent the exclusive truth. They are one form of expression, but there are umpteen others.

Generally, however, one gets the impression that artists are more concerned with overarching or socially interrelated topics and use whatever fits as a form of expression. There is no black and white in their thinking. Neither AI dominance nor tech resilience.

It is a happy, positive eclecticism of modernity after two years of distancing.


Your conclusion: What are the opportunities and dangers of the use of AI & Co. in the world of creatives?

From an objective point of view, there is little danger and all the more opportunity. The computer is nothing to be afraid of as it will always remain a companion of the artist. It is not to be assumed that it will ever create on its own. It is meant to mirror the capacity of imagination of the human artist’s mind and to make artistic work come true in ever new ways. And eventually, it will be a common technological fix and instrument.

In this sense I would like to close with a quote from the foreword to “The Age of Data”, written by Ian Anderson (The Designers Republic™): “Technology isn´t much without the ideas and dreams it fuels.”

About Christoph Grünberger

Christoph Grünberger (*1975) is an illustrator, designer and author. In his work, he deals intensively with the topic of digital art. In his latest book, "The Age of Data", he presents the latest art and design trends that revolve around data-based design and artificial intelligence (AI). The German has already received several national and international awards for his work – for instance at the Japan Media Arts Festival for the video installation "Wutbürger".

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