Dedd Pixel


You can lead a machine to paint, but can you teach it to express itself?

by on Mar.18, 2019, under Art, Tech

Earlier this month, The Atlantic featured an article about an art exhibit in Chelsea, Faceless Portraits Transcending Time, that featured artificial intelligence (AI) generated art.  Described as a “collaboration between an artificial intelligence named AICAN and its creator, Dr. Ahmed Elgammal,” the exhibit features somewhat abstract portraits of human-like figures.  Images that are suggestive of classical portrait art with a touch of disturbing thrown in. That touch of disturbing is likely the result of Elgammal’s “creative adversarial network,” or CAN, which replaces the typical discerner element in a generative adversarial network (GAN) machine-learning method with a more creative element that introduces more novel outcomes.  So instead of analyzing images and trying to produce an image that is the same as those images, Elgammal’s application tries to make creative variants on the imagery.

This brings AI and computing a step closer to that human ideal.  As quoted by Jeff Clune in the April 2017 article in the Communications of the ACM, Computing the Arts, machine-learning produced art is desirable

“because we consider artistic expression as one of the most uniquely human traits.  If we want to produce artificial intelligence that rivals human intelligence, that should include art.”

Elgammal’s process begins to address one of my impressions with AI generated art in that merely analyzing existing images and trying to produce another image that can be construed as belonging to the original set is not much more than copying the style of existing art rather than creating something new.  There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but how far can close approximations to existing art alone push the dialogue? We’re only talking about this art now, because it was generated by a machine. If a person endeavored to create close approximations to existing art, many would ignore it. The AI art created by the Obvious Collective at Christie’s last year was certainly more pleasant to look at than Elgammal’s but if a person today painted what appeared to be an ‘unfinished’ portrait of a possibly French clergyman, I’m not sure who would care.

In the Atlantic article, art historian John Sharp discusses how traditional portraiture included objects imbued with symbolism along with the human subjects.  The objects gave cultural context to the human figures.

“For example, men might be shown with an open book to show how they are in dialogue with that material; or a writing implement, to suggest authority; or a weapon, to evince power.”

I am certain that AI portrait artists could be trained on the cultural meanings of objects and colors across geography and time to create art that is meaningful to its target audience.  Once the machine gets good enough at generating a human portrait, it could also be set to include objects with certain cultural meanings and thus invoke reactions and feelings in the art viewers as they observe and make judgement on the subjects in the painting.

The machine could also be set to invoke a random set of symbolism.  Perhaps a portrait of a young man, wrapped in Virgin Mary blue, holding a writing implement and an apple.  People will feel compelled to ascribe meaning to the colors and objects depicted with the subject and use those symbols to guess the origin or history of him. However, the machine is devoid of any intent.

On Obvious’ webpage, they refute Picasso’s complaint about computers:

“Computers are useless. They can only give answers.” 

I still think it’s a good point. While a machine could be set to paint a portrait that depicts a person with objects that represent certain symbolic meaning, could it ever come up with novel concepts or generate art to express an idea that was not guided by operator intent or randomness?

Can an AI artist pose a novel question expressed through art?

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It’s an 8-bit World

by on May.23, 2014, under Art

Mashable recently described fascinating artwork by Adam Lister, who creates watercolor paintings of classical works in blocky, 8-bit like format.  I love his work, not only because of the video game reference, but because I’m impressed by his control over the medium.  As someone who can’t make watercolor paint do anything other than form nebulous blurs, I can appreciate his fine linework and controlled coloration.

I feel 8-bit video games are a natural inspiration for his work.  Impressionism used tiny brush strokes, often focusing on how light hits a subject.  8-bit video game graphics are constructed from tiny pixels, with every pixel critically placed to provide definition of the subject.  Sometimes a single pixel is all that exists to represent the highlight or shadow.

What’s especially interesting about this work is how the human brain reacts.  While the images are abstracted from what we recognize from the original art pieces, we clearly know what paintings they represent – assuming, of course, that we are familiar with the originals.  I zoomed in with my browser as far as it could go and the images were still recognizable to me regardless of what part of the image I was looking at.  The brain has an amazing capacity to process information and it does not require realism to understand it.  Most of what we see and experience on a daily basis are fast glimpses of reality, but our brain assembles these bits of information to present to us our understanding of the world.

While modern day video games focus on high-resolution, highly realistic graphics, the 8-bit imagery of yore will always hold appeal.

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Human Disconnectedness

by on May.13, 2014, under Art

Digital art has a tendency to feel cold and distant.  What fine art looks like in the selfie era exemplifies this.  It’s easy to feel emotionally distant when steel-blue pixels fly across the screen against an auditory backdrop of electronic, robotic noisescapes but these examples put a more depressive human angle on the new-wave of human disconnectedness .  In real life, you can barely have a conversation with someone and not have them check their facebook status or check in with foursquare, now we can experience art that barely notices that we are even there.

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Art and Outcomes on Student Thinking

by on Nov.25, 2013, under Art

The New York Times reported on  a study conducted on student visitors to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas that showed a strong correlation between exposure to the arts and enhanced critical thinking skills, higher levels of social tolerance and greater historical empathy.  This effect was stronger for students from poorer backgrounds who may have not had prior opportunities to view and think about art.  In light of this study, it seem especially demoralizing that arts programs are being cut in preference of a STEM-only curriculum when an integrated approach may be most effective at cultivating a young mind.

Education has been shoved into a pigeon-hole of teaching to the standardized tests and may be doing our teachers, our students, and this country’s future a major disservice.  The problems our children will have to solve, such as over-population and climate change, require creative thinking because there is no clear-cut answer.  Twelve years of training that the world’s problems can be boiled down to a single, easily arrived at letter on a multiple choice test is not the most effective way to prepare kids for the future, even if it’s easiest for us to judge.



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by on Sep.02, 2013, under Art, General and the New Museum are offering artists the opportunity to recover their art that is currently stuck on obsolete media before it is too late.  Through September 8th, they’re offering transfers from archaic storage such as floppy disks to a more stable format with the option to transfer them to the Internet Archive as well.

The art world has always had to deal with the issue of preservation but the severity of the issue is intensified by magnitudes for the born-digital materials.  This is not just true for art, but for other documents that made hold historical value.  In a world where it is so easy to Select All and Delete, how do we ensure that our history will be preserved?  Is it up to the digital archeologists of the future to comb through caches and log files to piece together the remnants of history forgotten?  I’ve had several desktop computers die on me and their carcasses sit dormant in the basement.  I simply re-installed the software on my new computers but the images, papers, and other memorabilia lie lost on those hard drives.  The exact makeup has long been forgotten so who knows when and if I’ll ever get around to recovered what was on those old drives.

In the age of the smartphone snapshot, how much digital history is banished before it can be preserved?  We snap away in our smartphone cameras and pick and choose what gets posted to our social media circles.  How many interesting beautiful cast-aways never see the light of a computer screen?  How many memories are forgotten when we upgrade our phone?  Physical prints are rarely created by the average person anymore, so how much family history will be lost in private Flickr accounts or locked down Facebook albums when someone passes away?  Is the age of stumbling across your grandparent’s old family album fading away?

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