SAPAR Contemporary is proud to present Art in the Age of Artificial Intelligence: Cheuk Wing Nam (Hong Kong), Ben Snell (US), Tom White (New Zealand), an exhibition curated by Marnie Benney. Long before computer scientist John McCarthy coined the term “artificial intelligence” in 1956, humans have been fascinated by the idea of intelligent machines. The notion of machines that are conscious—with a sense of self and a capacity for creative expression—has captured public imagination since the dawn of science fiction.
Technology that was once relegated only to fiction, is now deeply embedded into our lives. Machine outputs inform our daily decisions: the routes we drive, the songs we listen to, even the words that auto-complete our text messages. With such a close relationship to our machines, it’s vital that we seek to more deeply understand the systems that power our world. And not only do we want to understand them, we also want them to understand us. In the exhibition Art in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, three contemporary artists explore new questions paramount to our time: What is the role of technology in today’s society? As the line between physical and virtual blurs, what does it mean for human and machine interactions? How can art help us understand the technologies that so powerfully influence our lives? And as we define this new era of artistic exploration alongside artificial intelligence, how can we collaborate with machines to become powerful co-creators of art and culture?
From the earliest cave paintings through the Renaissance, Enlightenment and modernity, there has been a close bond between artists and the technologies they use. Leonardo Da Vinci’s interest in movement linked the human and the mechanical, foreshadowing modern robotics. Following this tradition, the Age of Artificial Intelligence harkens to Da Vinci’s pairing of art, science and technology as the artists in the show are focused on furthering the exploration of man and machine. By allowing artificial intelligence to partake in one of our most cherished and (thought to be) exclusively human qualities—creativity—artists Cheuk Wing Nam (aka Wing, Hong Kong), Tom White (New Zealand), and Ben Snell (US) collaborate with artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge technologies to better understand the relationship between human and machine.
Wing incorporates computer technology into her experimentation with sound. At the core of Wing’s work is an “attempt to display the similarities and/or contradictions between concepts and cultures”. For her “re-quantize” series she combines her inspiration with methodology, teaching her machine the vocalized sound of numbers. The machine is then prompted to create a corresponding image for each value. In response to the computer’s visual output, Wing produces a representational “drawing” of what the computer sees as an accurate number. Her creative liberties are expressed through the layering of canvas—an imperfect placement of these layers. There is a delicate quality to the work—most especially seen in moments like the single white thread that playfully loops its way through, highlighting the impermanence of sound. This call-and-response style of collaboration is a compelling representation of human and machine interaction and co-influence.
Tom White’s work investigates how machines see the world. In a society where computer vision systems are used on a massive scale for surveillance, medical diagnoses, and self-driving cars, his work explores how machine intelligence creates a model of the world that it can understand. By training AI systems to identify everyday objects, and then working closely with them to generate their own abstract interpretations of these concepts, he brings to light the inner workings of a largely misunderstood technology, as well as our increasingly complicated relationship with the technologies that power our civilization. With his Andy Warhol-style aesthetic, White displays how a computer sees a chicken and an eye. The colors are bold, bright, and graphic. The 2-D forms accentuate basic principles of drawing—line, shape, contrast—demonstrating the basic elements of the form and line that a machine “sees.”
Ben Snell teaches his AI agents to “become sculptors” by educating them on the great masters of the past. Snell trains his computers on 3D model datasets of Greco-Roman single figure sculptures, enabling them to learn form and structure from history’s greatest masters. He then directs his AI system to employ its own creativity in generating never-before-seen forms that are echoes of the white marble originals, as imagined by an intelligent machine. The resulting sculptures are reminiscent of the human form yet alien in their simplistic beauty. The protruding points of the sculptures are water droplets suspended in time. There is an undulation, a dance occurring among the limbs of these forms as they intertwine and separate, reminding us of the magic that the classical sculptors possessed when they turned hard marble into a ripple of smooth, soft fabric.
These artists’ exploration and collaboration with AI reveals not only a new understanding of the most disruptive technology of our time, but also the artistry and humanity of collaborations between man, woman and machine. Their works provide a critical perspective, reminding us of the human imperative to build and explore our relationship with the tools that shape us. This inquiry is vital not only to survive, but thrive with the next generation of intelligent systems that will define our future. The exhibition helps us to understand intelligent technology by experiencing how a machine might see, hear or sculpt the world around us. Creative collaborations with these new technologies become a dance between the creator and the algorithm. It is back and forth, a sway from one to the other. In each moment between the artist and the machine, there is a cycle of action and reaction, a tango of co-creation where the next step is continually revealed in real time. The artist influences the technology, and the technology influences the artist. This artistic process is itself— reflective of how a civilization is shaped by the very tools it creates.
Through this process of working with intelligent machines, we learn to better understand ourselves—who we are, who we are not, and how we can live in harmony with the invisible technologies that underpin so much of our world. To bring this home in a visceral way, this exhibition showcases three investigations into what a machine can see, hear, and create. It is an experiment of co-creation between human and AI, a time capsule crystallizing this critical point in history as we determine our complicated relationship with intelligent machines long into the future.