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Machine Metaphors in Art: Creative Agencies

1 December 2022 at 4:30:00 am

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Session Convenors

Dr Tony Curran, University of Tasmania

Session Speakers

Veronika Sinyanskaya, University of Melbourne
Kieran Browne
Dr. Karen ann Donnachie, RMIT University
Dr. Andy Simionato, RMIT University

For over a century, the machine has been an enduring metaphor for artists, philosophers, theorists, and historians commenting on the production, distribution, and consumption of art. Presenters in panel address the prevalence and impacts of machine metaphors, illuminating how such metaphors frame our thinking of artists, artworks, and arts workers, and consider what is at stake for communities when these metaphors are naturalized.

The Futurist’s dream to merge with machines still resounds in contemporary art. Andy Warhol famously wanted to “be a machine” as he and his “employees” worked away in the Factory. More recently, authorship has been attributed to algorithms as co-authors (vis-a-vis Harold Cohen and AI robot AARON) and as sole-authors in the 2018 Christies’ auction of The Portrait of Edmond Belamy (2018) by French collective Obvious. Levi-Bryant's Machine-Oriented Aesthetics (2011) proposed that artworks are engines that produce, anticipating Olafur Eliasson’s Reality Machines (2015), an exhibition title which positioned the artworks as reality-producing machines. Increasingly, the machine’s elevated position of value has become palpable in the representation of the artworld machine through the launch of Merek Classens AI and data driven art market App Limna, which calculates artists’ value in the attention economy. Is the machine now the measure of art?

This panel will be split across two sections, which divides the discussion between two foci - on creative agencies and asserting selfhood.

Who might be creative? Towards a post-anthropocentric view on authorship and creativity

Veronika Sinyanskaya, University of Melbourne

During the 20th century artists periodically expressed the view that human role in the creative process was diminishing and ascribed authorship to different “external parties”, such as the unconscious (surrealists), forces of nature (Morris, Smithson) and institutional surrounding (readymade & appropriation art). However, for the general public, such experiments remained a metaphorical dalliance with the romantic “Human-creator” model, and even the "death of the author" hailed by postmodernism hardly changed anything at a more substantial level. Today some digital AI technologies, supporting humans in text creation (e.g. GPT-3) or in work with digital images (ANN, GAN), demonstrate quite a tangible and even astonishing level of autonomy and agency, thereby reawakening the arguments about the nature of authorship and creativity. When artists experiment with these “intelligent” software systems as in the artworks of Sougwen Chung or Alexander Reben, they often admit that authorship and machine’s contribution in artworks became literally “un-ascribable” and indistinguishable (Chung). This paper, which examines the recent development of these ideas and practices, considers more flexible theoretical frameworks for defining creativity and authorship in the contemporary moment. In particular, it draws upon post-anthropocentric perspectives, which problematize human-exceptionalist positioning and related theories of assemblage, network and human-nonhuman partnership.

Rethinking the machine as artist: AI and automated plagiarism

Kieran Browne

AI art has enjoyed a recent renaissance, courtesy of broader advances in computer science and a sudden burst of interest from the art market. Though recent works have little in common, technically or aesthetically, with works of AI art from the 20th century, they are continuous with respect to their metaphors; namely, the treatment of machine as artist or as creative collaborator. While the expansion of the category "artist" to non-humans might be celebrated as a posthumanist triumph, the politics are far murkier. The development of state-of-the-art image generation models is increasingly the exclusive domain of large tech firms, demanding ever more data, resources and capital. Such systems imitate visual patterns extracted from archives of images that are used without payment or attribution, much of which remains under copyright. Such appropriation of creative work is cast, under the metaphor, as analogous to creative inspiration for the machine. Rather, it is a colossal grift. The metaphor implicit in the notion of the "AI artist" erases the wealth of creativity encoded in its archive and disguises the extractive processes at play.

Automated Art Systems as human-machine assemblage

Dr. Karen ann Donnachie, RMIT University; Dr. Andy Simionato, RMIT University

This paper will expound a series of automated-art-systems (AAS) in order to explore the uneasy human-machine relationships emerging from a deepening engagement with Artificial Intelligence and machine learning for creative processes and cultural production.

This research questions assumptions of beyond-human computational capacity based on experiences with our idiosyncratic, custom coded, automated-art-systems and their generative outcomes which include drawing, photography, poetry, and publications.

Although an AAS can sometimes be supervised, it is generally understood that it will function without constant human intervention, thereby disrupting traditional understandings of agency, attribution, and subjectivity.

Often made from upcycled technological-waste, and programmed through DIY custom-code, these AAS and their outcomes leverage processes and systems otherwise consonant with ‘technological accelerationism’ such as computer vision, Natural Language Processing (NLP), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML). Our AAS are designed to deliberately obfuscate and distract, digitally erase and decelerate, computationally confound and recombine, deliberately disrupting and contaminating the artefacts of existing human knowledge systems and their archives. All automated-art-systems described in this research are fully functional and have been exhibited internationally.



Dr Tony Curran, University of Tasmania 

Dr Tony Curran is a Lecturer in Fine Art in the School of Creative Arts and Media at the University of Tasmania in Launceston. His practice explores the impacts of touchscreen technologies on painted media and changing representations of the self in a post-digital society. Curran graduated with a PhD in Fine Art in 2015 and has held solo exhibitions and participated in group shows between Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne. 

Veronika Sinyanskaya, University of Melbourne 

Veronika Sinyanskaya is a PhD researcher at the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne, Faculty of Arts. Her research focuses on the issues of Computational Creativity and Authorship in technological art, Art&Science experiments, new materialism and the philosophy of Posthumanism. She holds a Bachelor’s and Master’s of Cultural Studies from Lomonosov Moscow State University. Before starting her academic career in Australia, Veronika practiced as an art manager and independent curator in leading art spaces and festivals in Moscow, including Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMOMA), Winzavod Contemporary Art Centre, Cosmoscow Art Fair and others. 

Kieran Browne 

Kieran Browne is an artist and independent researcher based in Perth, Western Australia. His research examines the representation of science and technology and his arts practice combines old and new media to propose alternate ways of understanding technological systems. His research has been published in venues including Leonardo, ACM CHI and the Springer book Human and Machine Learning (2018).

Donnachie and Simionato 

Donnachie and Simionato are an artist duo working in the expanded fields of computational art and design since the 1990s. In 2002 they founded “This is a Magazine” internet art publishing project and later the imprint “Atomic Activity Books”. Their work in new media, computational typography, expanded photography and electronic art has been widely shown in Europe, USA, Argentina, Japan New Zealand & Australia. They have been awarded international awards and grants, have received critical recognition in their fields, and have been featured in a number of major publications and international press. Recently they received the Tokyo Type Directors Club Award two years in a row, —in 2019 for a robotic-scribe that writes every tweet by Donald Trump, then in 2020 for their AI driven Library of Nonhuman Books. In 2020 they were also awarded the Cornish Family Prize for Art and Design Book Publishing (AU) and the Robert Coover Award for Electronic Literature (USA).

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