#EdmondDeBelamy #AI #Banksy. What happened in 2018 under the hashtag of art.
2018 was a weird and wired year. The art and tech people stretched ways of sharing, creating, and selling art, from the digital realm to the real one. I believe that two events could reflect (though, perhaps, in a slightly cracked mirror) the year of 2018. Funny enough, both of them took place on art auctions. First, Christie’s auction of an AI painting, reaching the amount of $432,500. Second, the live self-destruction of Banksy‘s Girl with a Balloon, right after Sotheby’s sold it for £1.04 m.
So, what all of these mean?
Portrait of Edmond Belamy. The center of the canvas is occupied by a blurred face of a young man. His pale skin contrasts with the dark background, just as his white collar. Dark marks on his face seem to be the eyes, a shade of a nose, and mouth. The texture is evident and rough, as the actual painting occupies only the very middle of the canvas. Who is he? Why cannot we see his gaze, nor any other details? What can his outfit tell us? Let’s ask the artist. Oh, wait, but the algorithm is not too excited to answer our doubts. At least, that what the people who created it say.
Let’s take a look at how an AI made artwork sells for $432,500, as Christie’s declares.
Firstly, it’s not really an AI-made artwork. Even though the article on Christie’s website almost yells at you that “Portrait of Edmond Belamy, bought for $432,500, is the first AI artwork sold on auction!!!”, it is not entirely true.
Let’s start, obviously, from the very start. Obviously, because it is all about OBVIOUS, a company created by three 25-year-old students from France. As they put it:
We are Obvious, a Paris-based collective of artists, Machine Learning researchers and friends interested in AI for Art.
All the technical details of how Obvious did their famous Belamy portrait is clearly explained by James Vincent in The Verge. The base for all AI-made paintings is a so-called generative adversarial network (GAN). Having an algorithm-generated art is nothing groundbreaking for people who are into it, to the point that there is even an aesthetic type defined asGANism. The fundamental code used for GAN-created content was modified by Robbie Barrat, a 19-years-old art and code fan. Not only Barret generated a new code, but also shared it using an open-source license.
Actually, Robbie is more than a “code fan.“
Here are some examples of what his codes do
Mario Klingemann, a German artist who has won awards for his own work with GANs, tells The Verge over email, “You could argue that probably 90 percent of the actual ‘work’ [Portrait of Edmond Belamy] was done by [Barrat].
To understand and not to underestimate the contribution of humans in the final look of Portrait of Edmond Belamy and other works of Belamy family, we have to grasp the idea of GANs.
The algorithm uses a set of so-called training data which is being reproduced and changed until a new algorithm is created and modified by humans. The algorithm generates new content that the algorithm has taught to create based on the samples from the training data. It is the human who selects interesting content or modifies it in order to make it more interesting.
Hugo Caselles-Dupré, the co-founder of Obvious collective, argues on Christie’s website
‘If the artist is the one that creates the image, then that would be the machine. If the artist is the one that holds the vision and wants to share the message, then that would be us.’
But let’s leave the issue of the percentage of artistic freedom that the algorithm had, the actual involvement of OBVIOUS team into the creation of the code, and the stake that Barrat had (including Caselles-Dupré asking Barrat to make changes to the code, as remarked by James Vincent‘s article). Things happened and now we can celebrate the art of AI (almost-AI).
General Codes, General Feelings, and, obviously, media coverage
On Christie’s website, the sale of Belamy portrait is portrayed as a turning point which signals the “arrival of AI art on the world auction stage.” The auction of Portrait of Edmond Belamy definitely marks the breakthrough of AI-generated content gaining renown in the art world and general public alike. Just as technology advances, the possibilities of creating art by reshaping, reassembling, mixing evolve. The question remains whether it is art or content and when (if) we will be able to label a piece with “AI-created” tag without concerns.
The case of Portrait of Edmond Belamy shows that so far in the AI-generated works, no matter whether they are deepfake videos or paintings of GANism, the process of creation is started and finished by the human “operator.” The AI-art-content cannot be created from nothing, and its ‘inspiration’ is selected by humans, and later intricately modified rather than being an “inspiration” for creating something new. As the code artist, Mario Klingemann, notes,
I wonder why they [Obvious collective] missed the opportunity to declare their work as an AI-readymade and bring us the first digital Duchamp.
In an interview for Dezeen, Caselles-Dupré summed up that
This new technology allows us to experiment on the notion of creativity for a machine, and the parallel with the role of the artist in the creation process.
Banksy, Banksy, and no Banksy
It might seem that an AI-generated painting doesn’t have much in common with Banksy‘s joke of shredding his Girl With Balloon at Sotheby’s auction. But it does – the problem of freedom, restriction, and ownership of art – the issue that we, as the widespread users of the Internet and technology, begin to realize.
Firstly, a short recap. A Banksy-made copy of Girl With Balloon mural painting, which was voted the most beloved painting in the UK in 2017, was shredded in the Sotheby’s auction hall the second it was sold for a “price equaled the artist’s previous auction record of £1.04m,” as notes the Guardian. People fell silent, photos and videos were shared, and Sotheby’s got banksy’ed.
What it reminded me of is the widespread crusade against internet freedom of creation, remix, and ownership.
The phenomenon of Banksy’s popularity is how avant-garde and hidden artist, whose art ruthlessly attacks the establishment, is being praised and commodified by the establishment. Banksy’s art, which is supposed to be available for many, is taken down and sell for the benefit of a few. This practice is possible mainly because Banksy often uses public space or a private wall without permission to create art. Doesn’t it sound like the constant issue with copyrights in YouTube remixes or memes?
The majority of the establishment, that is the handful of people who are able to buy and resale Banksy’s pieces, do not actually support the artist. Banksy shredded his artwork, yet it was (as far as we know) not owned by Banksy. The money did not go to the artist, yet to the owner of the piece. The closed environment of the auction hall, of buyers and sellers, is not usually in the limelight. Banksy was trying to get our attention and make what’s elitist popularized, just as Banksy’s artwork became commercialized and materialized. Simultaneously, it was really a good prank.
The institution and its members that Banksy criticized turned the criticism into merit. In Sotheby’s online update following the shredding, they remarked that “history was made: it marked the first time a piece of live performance art had been sold at auction.”
Yet again, if the piece wasn’t signed by Banksy, this piece of history would have never happened. Ironically, the media coverage that Banksy’s joke got, makes the machine of commercialization go on, and the value of Banksy-signed works will perhaps go up.
A few days after the history-making shredding, a Sotheby’s website update clarioned that “The new work has been granted a certificate by Pest Control, Banksy’s authentication body, and has been given a new title, Love is in the Bin.” Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art, said to the BBC that “the first artwork in history to have been created live during an auction” was accepted by its buyer after the shredding of the previous one. Yay.
Would anyone who is not directly linked or interested in the art world notice the sale of Banksy’s work if it didn’t shred? Perhaps not. Similarly, the recent disaster over the EU’s Article 13 was not broadly covered in the media and not many people cared. In both cases, the general indifference is overshadowed by a few actions that individual take trying to make a difference.
The main point for Article 13 and Banksy’s auction is the same: profit and ownership.
Some say that Banksy’s prank during the Sotheby’s auction might have negative consequences for the art world. In The New York Times article, we read that
Banksy’s clever trick is sure to earn him a footnote in auction history, which is no stranger to stunts (most involving chandelier pricing). Still, this one did give rise to a slender hope that if such tricks become an auction house staple, serious people might go back to buying art the old- fashioned way — from galleries.
Banksy’s creativity still surprises the general public and those who commodified and commercialized the art. While it is nothing new that popular culture subverts the individual into a corporate brand and uses it to promotes its ideology, Banksy is still making this revelation fresh and ironic, a kind of approach that we all should learn from.
Personal technology was so awful this year that nobody would think you were paranoid if you dug a hole and buried your computer
However, how much was it the technology, and how much was it the people behind it?
In 2019, we cannot forget that so far technology is designed, programmed, and disseminated by an elitist group of human beings who end up controlling lives of billions of people, both online and offline.