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Technology is “stupid,” it can’t adapt or learn on its own. The limits of technology define a generation, but human creativity pushes the boundaries of technology and defines future iterations. For example, we romanticize the black and white or sepia eras of photography because of their signature absence of color. The signature muffled tones and low-fidelity sounds of acoustic-era recordings will forever resonate with the pre-1925 time period. Even popular musical genres were shaped by the technology’s limitations: musicians favored loud brass instruments that would register within the 250-2,500 Hz sound range that analog recorders could pick up.
Examples from all realms of technology proliferate throughout history. Today, VR and AI are two technological advancements whose limitations will define our generation and inspire the next. Here are some artists and innovators who help define and make sense of this new paradigm.
Brian Eno’s ‘The Ship’
Much discussed at Cannes, Eno used AI to help create the songs on his album, as well as a procedurally-generated music video.
The process is not one of flipping a switch and sitting back while a computer produces an entire album. Instead, in a pattern that’s becoming more common, creatives like Eno are working alongside AIs as a master would an apprentice. Eno laid out the materials and the structure, but the AI was what created the sound. “What I was doing was having a conception of having a way of making music, and then building that and letting it happen.” Said Eno.
“The Next Rembrandt”
JWT’s experiment in the intersection of art and AI is as philosophically intriguing as it is unsettling. The Next Rembrandt is the product of state-of-the-art data analysis and artificial intelligence studying every detail of Rembrandt’s oeuvre, then generating an entirely new painting that is eerily reminiscent—if not indistinguishable—from the Dutch master’s.
While we can use AI to create art that approaches that of a genius, it cannot surpass it. It is derivative in the truest sense, only able to follow in Rembrandt’s own strokes, down to a microscopic level in this case. But, through this technology, we now have a new Rembrandt—an infinite number of Rembrandts, actually. The technology cannot yet innovate on the master’s work, but will that always be the case?
The earliest discussions around Google’s reverse image-recognition software were about the creepiness of its distorted, hallucinogenic images. Now, the same images are selling for tens of thousands of dollars in art galleries.
Using the same neural networks that learn to recognize faces and object in photos, DeepDream tries to find images in existing images, pulling them out of a hand, a leaf, or a cloud until they become a dog, spider, or castle. Some are mesmerizing, others disturbing. All are original, and it’s difficult to imagine a human creating them. DeepDream doesn’t just follow the guidelines of its creators, it learns on its own. They chart a new, machine-driven aesthetic.
Google is looking to incorporate the tech into their Cardboard VR platform, meaning we may be dreaming up our own works of art within this neural network in the near future.
Rachel Rossin, “Lossy”
Rachel Rossin’s collection “Lossy”, which debuted last year, joins a dialogue between VR, digital painting, and traditional technique that—while still far from fully explored—is becoming more common.
Rossin’s physical works depict images that have been compressed, edited, and tampered with in a computer, then recreated in oils. Her VR experiences allow viewers to float among and through fragments of her work in an abstract space.
According to Wired, “Lossy” is computer jargon for images that lose their quality and become distorted when they’re saved, so as to take up less space. As the barrier between the virtual and the real world blur, we have to ask: what’s being left behind as we move from one to another?
Nam June Paik, “TV Garden”
The interplay between technological innovation and artistic creation is not new. Artists from every technological period have used the limitations and opportunities provided in their technological moment to exercise their creativity.
Television, in its heyday is defined by its pure analog “inside-the-box” experience: the “tube” was a portal into a completely separate world, through which images and sounds are fed. Today, television has evolved to become more connected and audience-controlled—with advancements in over the top content, for example—and ever-more immersive with advancements in technology–and it’s creativity/creatives helping us drive the medium forward.
The original pioneer of video art, Paik used television and technology as his canvas, distorting reception and sound to create immersive, wholly original exhibits. His innovation and technique inform any artist working with the electronic image today.
One of his most well-known exhibits, “TV Garden” (1973, restaged in 2000), combines technology and nature as patrons wander through a forest of plants and televisions, all playing his polyglot musical collaboration Global Groove. Like all good art that makes technology its subject, it turns our way of thinking about a cutting-edge innovation on its head. The ambient exploration the installation requires anticipates the way we move through VR experiences.
Hans Holbein, “The Ambassadors”
In 1553, Holbein used every tool at his disposal to create one of the evocative and puzzling paintings of his time. While there’s a rich interplay of symbolism throughout the painting, most shocking is the strangely distorted skull lurking at the feet of the subjects.
The skull, painted using lenses and mirrors, is a technical marvel as well as an artistic one. When configured using a computer, it’s revealed as a perfectly-proportioned skull that’s been morphed, projected, and traced. The reasons for this warped memento mori are unclear, but the effect is not: jarring, uncanny, and unreal.
Working with technology can be a boon to creativity in any medium. It allows us to ask new questions, challenge our limitations, and imagine new ways and perspectives. For anyone in a creative industry, growth will not come from simply using a technology, it will come from using technology to inspire creativity by interrogating its limitation. That is real innovation.