The art of parallel processors | Encore

Since the 1950s, scientists have been researching various problems in artificial intelligence (AI). However, it has only recently started having significant appeal, coinciding with a golden age of growth in every sector we know of. It is about enabling robots to emulate human actions, particularly cognitive behavior. AI algorithms are now being used in various industries, from healthcare to retail and e-commerce, food technology, banking and financial services, logistics, transportation and travel, real estate, entertainment and gaming.

The AI has also made an appearance in the realm of art. With the advent of generative art in the ’50s, visual artists began experimenting with new technological concepts and computer graphics. Artists like Manfred Mohr and Vera Molná pioneered computer art by investigating aesthetic ideas driven by science and creating images derived from the subjectivity of the artistic process. Rashid Rana, a renowned and admired visual artist, initially trained as a painter, later pioneered a unique form of digital art using AI-based algorithms to translate his ideas through deconstructed photographs. Since then, his non-prescriptive approach has brought him many global accolades. Through pixel-perfect, eye-catching and attention-grabbing photo mosaics, Rana’s works show a contemporaneous element of illusion and surprises; a more complex message is revealed later — as a visual strategy. Contemporary diasporic artist Saks Afridi’s new volume of NFT-enabled works, Woven Portals, uses artificially intelligent codes. The series mixes Persian rug geometry with spaceship navigation technologies.

As Afridi claims, each artwork is created by hand with the help of technology, resulting in a collaboration between man and machine, tradition and technology. Abdul Rehman, also known as AB, is a Lahore-based emerging artist who incorporates augmented reality into his painted canvases. AB combines his childhood love of games with his passion for painting to tell exciting stories, using humour as a defence mechanism to expose social difficulties concealed under the colourful and humorous looks of naïve yet physically exhausting games. Portrait of Edmond de Belamy (2018) exceeded expectations at Christie’s New York, selling for $350,000.

The painting If That Is The Proper Term is one of a collection of portraits of the fictitious Belamy family produced by an AI software taught by Obvious, a Paris-based collective.

When it comes to the potential of artificial intelligence in creative processes, sky is the limit. Scientists and experimental artists have increasingly used the approach of training GANs (generative adversarial networks) on a wide range of images, from cat and puppy shots to paintings by historical masters. San Francisco-based Uber software engineer Phillip Wang recently introduced the website thispersondoesnotexist.com, based on the StyleGAN.

The only thing on the website is an AI-generated face. The AI builds a brand-new look from the start with each page refresh. It is noteworthy that taking pictures of imaginary individuals was a byproduct of the original objective: to teach artificial intelligence (AI) to surveillance devices to identify real and false faces. With a recent make-do in the digital art world and the synchronous cascades of NFTs, Crypto Art, a relatively new form of AI-generated art, has become immensely popular. This takes a person’s typed prompts and converts them into an image, using Mid Journey accessed through a Discord server, Google’s DeepDream, OpenAI’s DALL-E 2, Night Café, Hotpot, WOMBO Dream or any of a bunch of apps and open-source, client-side servers. They all can mimic many contemporary art styles, provided the images from a particular artist or art movement are available on the internet with some or complete metadata.

Despite the progress, after winning first place in the fine art category at the Colorado State Fair very recently, an AI-generated piece of art, Théâtre D’opéra Spatial, aroused controversy that swamped fierce discussions over Discord, Twitter and the exciting virtual domains of the metaverse. Some have argued in favour of it while others have declared this phenomenon the demise of traditional art and artists. The outcry reminds me of several epochs in art/ design history.

The Fountain, a readymade artwork by Marcel Duchamp in 1917, consisted of a porcelain urinal marked R. Mutt. They are, according to Duchamp, “ordinary items elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the artist’s act of choice. The Fountain was later taken to Alfred Stieglitz’s studio, and the image was published in the Dada periodical The Blind Man. After more than a century, art historians and avant-garde thinkers consider the piece a key landmark in the Twentieth-Century art. A similar uproar erupted when the camera was invented. Many criticised it, claiming that it lacked a “soul.” Look at us now. Photography is a well-known art form and a commonplace pastime. The extraordinary fusion of the century has been a smartphone with a camera.

A design software does not itself produce art just as television sets don’t produce shows or movies and newspaper do not make news. The human mind behind the tools produces the content. Generating an exciting visual would require “refining prompts“ as a skill. There has been indignation that a prompter may copyright these images. This technique exploits random artworks of deceased or living artists without permission, paying them no royalties for their initial ideas and efforts to create dynamic visuals. By this logic, any music composer who uses midi controllers cannot claim credit for their work. After all, they aren’t playing anything; they provide midi cues for a computer to decipher.

What shall an artist or a designer do? Boycott cars/ bikes as they only denote horsepower but don’t use the actual horses? Saks Afridi says that “this automation won’t replace artists. It will help artists express themselves. It’s a great new tool to help us communicate, but it can’t speak independently. Humans like art/ design others have made or had a direct and engaged role in. For now, we’re wired like that. With time, this may change. To replace humans, artificial intelligence would have to consider subjective and objective processes realistically. And that is about the illogical and unpredictable – acting like humans, not just to think and calculate but also to conceive and associate and ‘artifice’ too. Robots are not going to replace humans; they are going to make their jobs much more humane. Robots will take complex, demeaning, demanding, dangerous, dull jobs, as Sabine Hauert, co-founder of Robohub, says.

We certainly can propose robots participating in the Olympics while building highly fictionalised worlds under the umbrella of speculative art/ design/ architecture. Fiction requires more exciting visuals and promising narratives, and it’s safe to produce them using the latest technologies.


The writer is an art/ design critic. He heads the Department of Visual  Communication Design at Mariam Dawood School of Visual Arts & Design, Beaconhouse National University, Lahore


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