Will AI annihilate art? Not likely, according to artist Alexander Reben, who has worked with AI for years. Indeed, we may be entering an exciting new era that alters our perceptions of creativity itself.
In 2020, I was stuck in a creative rut. The Covid-19 pandemic was altering relationships, gatherings, and working methods. When we were all physically separated from one another, I, like many others, struggled to feel inspired. Despite the chaos and uncertainty, I discovered an unexpected collaborator:
At the time, I had access to GPT-3, a machine learning algorithm capable of writing original text passages. For example, if you type in “The following is a description of a fish:,” you might get:
A fish is a small silvery-colored animal with a long, slender body. It has delicate, transparent fins and a forked tail. It has large, black eyes and a small mouth.
It’s not taken from the internet; the AI creates it. GPT-3, on the other hand, can produce essays, fiction, and even articles like this one when given the right prompts. Its writing frequently appears to be human. I experimented with a variety of output, including dad jokes, poems, sci-fi stories, and more.
To my surprise, I discovered that the AI could write the type of text that appears on a wall label next to a painting in an art gallery.
After a few weeks of experimenting, I realised the AI could describe fictitious artworks. To my surprise, I discovered that I could instruct it to write the type of text that appears on a wall label next to a painting in an art gallery. This would be the beginning of an intriguing collaborative journey with GPT-3 and a suite of other AI art tools, leading to work ranging from a physical sculpture of toilet plungers to full-size oil paintings on the wall of a Mayfair art gallery.
In recent months, there has been much discussion about whether AI-generated art will be detrimental to artists. There is little doubt that disruptive changes are on the way, and there are still important questions about bias, ethics, ownership, and representation that must be addressed. However, new technologies have caused upheaval in the art world for centuries. Working with AI to create sculptures, paintings, and other works has changed my perspective on the creative process and the possibilities of human-machine collaboration. I believe we are witnessing the birth of a completely new art form.
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To be clear, when I say AI, I don’t mean an anthropomorphic or sentient system, but rather a machine learning algorithm – and there must be a human involved in the process. When I first asked GPT-3 to generate imaginary artworks, I quickly discovered this. While it was relatively simple to get the system to generate descriptions that all sounded good, getting it to generate output that I found interesting was a completely different story. I spent about a month on “prompt engineering,” which is the process of creating effective input text for AI systems.
I created a workflow with GPT-3 and other algorithms that could produce a description of an artwork and the imagined human name of its creator, as well as their birthdate and other details, once I found a sequence of initial words that would “tickle” the AI in the right way. I then sifted through hundreds to thousands of results to find ones I like. These were then fed back into the system to generate additional text. The text was then corrected for punctuation, spacing, and other technical flaws.
When I got the following output (which made me laugh a little too hard alone in my studio in lockdown), I knew I’d found the right recipe:
The sculpture includes a plunger, a toilet plunger, a plunger, a plunger, a plunger, a plunger, and a plunger, all of which have been altered. The first plunger is just a regular plunger, but the others are a series of plungers with more and more of the handle removed until only the rubber cup remains. The artwork is titled “A Short History of Plungers and Other Things That Go Plunge in the Night” and was created by the artists known as “The Plungers” (whose identity remains unknown).
“The Plungers” were a group of anonymous artists who formed a collective in 1972. Plungism was a creative interpretation of the idea of Plungerism, which The Plungers defined as “a state of mind wherein the mind of an artist is in a state of flux and able to be influenced by all things, even plungers.” The Plungers’ works were displayed in New York galleries and included titles such as “Plunger’s Progress,” “The Plungers Strike Back,” and “The Plungers Strike Back.” The Plungers vanished, leaving no trace of their whereabouts.
This made me wonder: what if I made these generative descriptions in real life? Because the AI cannot create physical objects, it is up to my human faculties to do so. Moving the work from the digital to the physical realm, I reasoned, would give it more weight and presence, which a screen can sometimes lack. A sort of symbiotic relationship developed, with the AI producing output that required my imagination, fabrication ability, aesthetic judgement, and intuition to visualise and complete.
Here’s the physical manifestation of the plunger artwork, which I created as part of the AI’s “AI Am I?” series:
This absurd sculpture could easily be parked next to Duchamp’s urinal in a high-concept museum. Of course, “The Plungers” collective never existed, but the narrative in this work of fictional realism creates a compelling story. Because the text is as important as the artwork in many contemporary artworks, I consider the final work diptychs, the artwork, and the wall label together.
Other examples included the following sculptures, which the AI described in the captions above each image:
The AI’s description:
This sculpture is made up of a flip clock that has been scrambled like a bad dream. It rests on an empty can of stew, which the artist ate because it was dinnertime and she was hungry… (Read the complete text.)
The AI’s description:
This sculpture is like a giant version of a child’s building toy…The title “Permanent Temporary” is derived from a remark made by the artist’s father, who said, “Well, it’s permanent in the sense that it won’t blow away, but it’s temporary because you can put it together and take it apart.”