The $48,500 elephant in the room at an SF AI art exhibition

The $48,500 elephant in the room at an SF AI art exhibition

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In July I wrote about a new artificial intelligence application called DALL-E 2. How it works is that a user types a text prompt into a website and within seconds the application produces a collection of pictures. There are virtually no limits to image subjects or artistic styles.

The capabilities of this tool are currently on display in a new art exhibit at the Minnesota Street Project’s bitforms gallery (located in San Francisco’s “coolest neighborhood” Dogpatch). “Artificial Imagination” features eight artists from across the country, with a strong focus on Los Angeles, as well as a representative of the local scene: Alexander Reben of Berkeley.

Given the questionable ethical behavior of many tech companies, being a tech optimist is hard these days. This type of art exhibition does not make things easier. AI has limitless possibilities; in this use case, it has the power to democratize artistic creation, breaking the boundaries of craftsmanship and essentially serving as a translator of imagination.

Or it may just be a bull generator.

The four dumbest words you could say in any art gallery are “I could do that,” but this exhibit proved a rare case in which that kind of artistic skepticism was warranted.

“Bitter Recursion” by Ellie Pritts and “New Experimental, State of the Art” by August Kamp, presented at bitforms gallery in San Francisco.

Dan Kind

Both pieces by 23-year-old Los Angeles-based artist August Kamp — a grieving black cosmonaut and an abstract rendition of a synthesizer — were aesthetically appealing enough. To his credit, Kamp openly shared his general prompts. For “But You Promised”, the words she introduced in DALL-E 2 sounded like “a cosmonaut experiencing grief on another planet”. Anyone could type those words and get a similar result, and she said the lack of personal ownership was part of what drew her to tech.

“I love the idea that my art doesn’t belong to me. I love the idea that if someone sees my piece and thinks, I’d love that style, but for this idea of ​​mine, take This is my attraction for this type of technology.

The cosmonaut’s face looks like a classic visual definition of heartache, but while it shows the emotion perfectly, it doesn’t tell the viewer anything else. When I asked Kamp how much it was for sale, she said she didn’t know.

The next artist I spoke with was Alexander Reben, a 37-year-old Berkeley-based man who studied the intersection of robotics and art at MIT before becoming a full-time artist with commissions that include a sculpture for Meta’s Menlo Park hall. He had a digital painting in the show, as well as two sculptures he built following a description provided by the AI ​​text generator GPT-3.

The first thing I asked for was the name of the brightly colored painting, an abstract pastiche of swirling colors and patterns with a vaguely Afrofuturistic sensibility.

“I don’t remember the name of that one,” he said. “I have six fingerprints, and this is one of them. The name of my purely generative works is an adjective and a noun that the computer makes.

When I asked him about the prompts involved in creating it, he had a very different mentality than Kamp. He refused to divulge them, calling the prompts his “secret sauce.”

We then walked to one of the sculptures, a 31 by 22.5 inch canvas covered in shingles, two iron bars, a lamp, a handcuff and a pair of keys. Text instructions are posted on a small sign in the museum. “So basically the AI ​​is telling me what art to create,” he said.

A picture of "This is not a barrier" by Alexander Reben, presented at bitforms gallery in San Francisco.

A photo of “This Is Not A Barrier” by Alexander Reben, presented at bitforms gallery in San Francisco.

Dan Kind

The title of this one, which he read on the sign, is “This Is Not A Barrier”. When I asked Reben for the price of each piece, like Kamp, he said he wasn’t sure.

A few minutes later, I looked at the prices: a set of five “nominal_quiche” draws sells for $2,500 each. (Kamp’s Cosmonaut is also $2,500.)

The sculpture is on sale for $48,500.

The four dumbest words you can say in an art gallery are “why is it so expensive”, but in this case I thought the question was justified. I went back and asked Reben.

“The values ​​are usually calculated in collaboration with the gallery, as well as the prices of the works that I have sold before. Over time, they go up. I would also say that things that are larger, or one-offs versus series or multiples, have a higher price tag. So it’s kind of a mix of things. I think it’s also part voodoo, working with galleries over time,” he said. “Just because it has a price doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to sell for that price.”

Although event organizers could not confirm if any of them had sold, several works of art are on hold due to interest from several collectors.

"liminal recovery," a piece of video art created by Ellie Pritts and featured at bitforms gallery in San Francisco.

“Liminal Reprise”, a video art piece created by Ellie Pritts and presented at bitforms gallery in San Francisco.

Courtesy of bitform gallery

Four other words you might hear from a skeptic in an art gallery are “is it really art”. Although the question might be considered condescending, in a way it is also the most important. It would take a semester-long art history class to unpack, but the short answer is simply “the eye of the beholder.” One of the pieces from the “Artificial Imagination” show looked like art to me – a nice 30-minute video by Turkish-American designer Refik Anadol titled “Machine Hallucinations Nature Dreams Study 1”. He applied proprietary machine learning to 46 million nature images, which seamlessly morphed from one landscape to another, like a modern version of Philip Glass’ “Koyaanisqatsi.” It is priced at $75,000.

I don’t believe this video is worth a down payment on a house in a modest American suburb, but I’m not irritated by the economics of the voodoo art world here. The video inspired a sense of wonder and curiosity – not just about the world, but about the technology that made the art possible. It didn’t seem like it was done by a magic wand and a few carefully chosen words.

The catch is that if you play one of these AI image generators yourself, the experience really feels like you’re casting spells. As someone who has gone through 20 test images on Midjourney in an hour, I can say that these are incredibly fun tools, and there is indeed a subtlety to getting results. But I used the “futuristic synthesizer” prompt and got surprisingly similar results to Kamp’s “new experimental, state-of-the-art” article, down to the same shade of orange.

It brings me no joy to disrespect someone who has devoted himself to mastering a craft in pursuit of self-expression, but nothing about most of that art seemed to be focused on the craft or personal. At best, the mission of this art was unclear. At worst, it seemed to me like a test of these artists’ ability to convince collectors that the Emperor, or in this case the algorithm, wears clothes – and to pay obscene sums of money to own these clothes.

AI can be used as a tool for expression, but here it felt more like contract work, just a hired robotic hand tasked with drawing a sad astronaut. These pieces may have looked like art, but to me they didn’t look like art. There was a cold divide between creation and creator, made even colder by the extremely expensive price tags. The problem wasn’t the AI; it was lack of imagination.

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