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This Paris Collective is Bringing Artificial Intelligence to Art

Mention the term ‘Artificial Intelligence’ (AI) and you’re bound to inspire a few familiar responses: the inquisitive raise of an eyebrow, light-hearted references to sci-fi films, perhaps a robot joke or two. Introduce the idea of AI in the context of art and reactions will likely turn more extreme. Are machines set to replace artists? How could AI match up to the beauty and purpose of traditional artistic production? And how much (if any) integrity will we lose in handing over human creativity to an algorithm?

Paris-based collective Obvious is all too familiar with these sorts of questions. Since bursting onto the scene in 2017 with original artworks created with the use of Generative Adversarial Networks (GAN), the three friends-turned-tech-art innovators have attracted considerable buzz. Though this attention has brought their small team both support and skepticism, the main response to Obvious’s work has, in fact, been overwhelmingly positive. According to Pierre Fautrel, one of the collective’s co-founders along with Gauthier Vernier and Hugo Caselles-Dupré, the traditionally conservative reputation we associate with the art world no longer applies in today’s contemporary market.  “We’ve noticed that art actors and collectors are always excited for breakthroughs, innovative mediums and new ideas,” he says.

Money Moves

Fautrel’s statement is supported by the collective’s recent and resounding market success. Obvious was well and truly put on the map in October last year, when they watched their artwork ‘Portrait of Edmond Belamy’ sell for $432,500 at a Christie’s auction in New York – 45 times its estimated sale price. This was, by all accounts, a historic sale, and the collective has only continued to pick up steam from there. Just last week, half of the works in Obvious’s latest series (released to the public only yesterday) was snapped up at an exhibition at the Hermitage Museum, all before it was even officially on sale. While art has meant more than a painting on a canvas for decades now, Obvious’s use of AI to produce art—and the rate at which it gained both notoriety and success—were unprecedented.

Portrait of Edmond Belamy
‘Portrait of Edmond Belamy’ by Obvious, which sold for $432,500 in October 2018. Note the artwork’s signature: the formula of a core component of the original GAN model.

From European Portraits to Japanese Prints

Riding the wave of this initial success, Obvious has just released their latest series, moving from traditional European portraiture to produce a collection of work inspired by traditional Japanese prints. Titled ‘Electric Dreams of Ukiyo,’ the series invites the viewer to “travel at the premises of electricity at the end of the Edo period in Japan.” Eleven portraits and eleven landscapes make up the series, with 2 works among these executed using ancient printing techniques (Moku Hanga: carved wooden blocks applied to Japanese paper).

The series cleverly pays tribute to an era known for its artistic richness while simultaneously establishing a parallel in both content and execution: the arrival of electricity in Japan during the Edo period mirrors the emergence of AI in today’s society. Fautrel has noted that the double entendre at play in ‘Electric Dreams of Ukiyo’ was indeed intentional. In response to the varied reactions to their six-figure Christie’s sale, and the debate around the role of tech in art that followed, Obvious decided to create a series that would give them a chance to have their say on the matter. In suit, ‘Electric Dreams of Ukiyo’ turns our attention to a time when Japan, now a global epicenter of tech innovation, feared the emergence of electricity. The series in turn suggests we learn a little more from history before jumping to alarmist conclusions about the implications of AI and its newfound role in artistic production.

'The Catfish Bay' by Obvious
‘The Catfish Bay’ by Obvious; from their new series inspired by traditional Japanese prints. GANs algorithms, inkjet on washi paper, 78x106cm.

Man vs Machine

However, this new collection, and the questions it poses, may not be able to quell the concern some critics have about the potential of machines to hinder human creativity. Electricity didn’t exactly threaten the creative contribution of humans to art and society during the Edo period. Sure, AI can be similarly understood as a tool for production, but its function in art goes a little beyond something like a photographer’s camera. Obvious has stated that “AI is a new tool, allowing the maximization of the creative potential of humans. Nevertheless, for the first time, humans also have the possibility of maximizing the creative potential of their tool.” But are these distinctions set to blur?

For Fautrel, this opens up a philosophical can of worms. As he sees it:

“For more than a century the progress of medicine and technology has aided human evolution by allowing us to correct some of our flaws. Glasses, hip prostheses, hearing aids… these allow us to do things that were previously impossible. But none of these things came remotely close to turning us into machines or seeing us enter some sort of ‘machine state.’ I think it’s the same with AI.”

According to Fautrel, AI increases our capacity (in this case our creative capacity) but is incapable of doing much more; it may be centuries before machines can be considered as proper, autonomous entities. While it is certainly a powerful tool that can execute tasks extremely efficiently, it has no awareness or intent. For Fautrel, then, AI’s perceived power is over-exaggerated, a product of an over-excited collective imagination. The distinction between human and machine has not, in fact, “moved an iota”. Computers are tools at the service of humanity, now and for a long time to come.

'Katsuwaka of the Dawn Lagoon' by Obvious
‘Katsuwaka of the Dawn Lagoon’ by Obvious. GANs algorithms, inkjet on washi paper, 78x106cm.

As for Obvious, their role as artists is not diminished when working with AI. Significant work has to be undertaken before the machine can do its part. They must select their subject, curate the data, construct the algorithm, select the output, and select the medium. This labor effectively situates them as the main actors in the process, regardless of whether the final image is something they could have imagined themselves. The GAN technology Obvious uses cannot, after all, replicate their inspirations or intentions. More than a challenge to conventional creativity, for this group of young innovators, AI acts as a beacon of potential, and this is what led them to explore the technology within art in the first place. Founding member Hugo was researching Machine Learning (AI) when he came across GANs, and soon after found himself excitedly explaining the powerful algorithms to his friends in their living room. The unexplored potential of AI and a thirst for adventure and innovation in art is what led them here today.

A New Era for Art?

The arrival of AI in art is a fascinating addition to an industry and practice that continues to evolve. For some, it represents the medium of the future – ‘GANisme’ has already been coined to describe what could become a veritable artistic movement. For purists, it’s perhaps a difficult pill to swallow. But GAN-generated images at least make some things clear. New technologies can be useful, and they can also be beautiful. They can challenge our perceptions about creativity, ownership and autonomy. They can mix the old with the new in interesting ways. And, just maybe, they can transport three young men from a living room in the French Alps to the prestigious auction houses of New York City.

To find out more, head to Obvious’s website or check out their interactive guide to their new Japanese-inspired series.

Cover Image: the Obvious team – Gauthier Vernier, Hugo Caselles-Dupré and Pierre Fautrel (L-R).

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