Art and the machine: Symposium to explore impact of Artificial Intelligence on imagination

Some of Audry's Vessels in action.

By Meaghan Richens

The intersection of art-making and artificial intelligence is a growing topic of interest, especially for the Ottawa-based media arts group Artengine.

It’s why they are holding a symposium Sunday at Arts Court from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. that will examine, debate and try to understand a discussion about AI, machine learning and artistic practice. 

The Artificial Imagination Symposium will feature presentations and conversations about AI and machine learning in relation to art and creativity.

For Ryan Stec, artistic director at Artengine, the goal “is to tease out important and interesting conversations and movements as they relate to art, society and technology. Doing something about AI is topical and important, and it is a way for us to bring together artists, critics, writers, thinkers, art lovers and the just plain curious to conversation that is locally organized.”

This is happening as artificial intelligence is having a profound impact on the art world of art.

In July, a study from Rutgers University showed that “human subjects could not distinguish art generated by (AI) from art generated by contemporary artists and shown in top art fairs.” In August, the very first record composed and produced by an AI known as Amper  was released. The disc was called I AM AI.

The Artengine event will explore ideas about AI and art through three themed conversations.

“The first is with contemporary indigenous artists and a consideration of how technology is understood in different cultural contexts,” said Stec.

“The second is about sensing the world, and how do we engage with technology in a different kind of sensing. Essentially, what does it mean creatively for something to not have a body or at least a distributed one. The third is about consciousness and the machine. In some ways we are asking the question what does imagination or dreaming mean for a machine?” Stec said.

Allison Parrish is a computer programmer, poet and instructor at New York University (NYU)’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, and will be a panellist in the symposium, discussing “acts of consciousness and the machine.”

She writes computer programs that generate poetry.

“I work a lot with data-based techniques,” said Parrish. “For example, there’s a public domain database of texts called Project Gutenberg. I’ll use those as a source of data and use natural language processing to pick out all of the noun phrases from one genre, all of the prepositional phrases from another genre, smash them together and see what happens,” said Parrish.

Parrish sees her work as an extension of the work of poets in the Dada and Fluxus movements, both of which sought to up-end traditional thinking about what art is.

She pointed to the poet and performance art named Tristan Tzara. He is known for taking a newspaper article, cutting out the individual words that made up the article. He would then put the slips of paper into a bag, shake it gently, then draw the slips out one at a time. He would write them down, creating a poem.

“The poem will be like you. And here are you a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar,” Tzara wrote about his concept.

“By putting language together in unexpected ways you’re activating different parts of the mind,” said Parrish. “You’re making it so language can do things that maybe we haven’t considered before.”

Another who thinks about art and technology is Sofian Audry, a computer scientist, artist and assistant professor of New Media in the School of Computing and Information Science at the University of Maine. His work engages ideas of artificial agency and artificial behaviour.

“When you make art with computers or using agents like I do, you have to work with a tension between, on one side, your own authorship, your desire to control things, to shape things in a certain way and how much autonomy you are going to leave to the artwork, or in my case, the agents that I’m designing, to do things on their own, to live their artificial lives,” said Audry.

“And how much do I also have to, at some point, intervene and start making choices as an artist.”

Some artists have a very clear idea or plan they follow when creating a work. But Audry said he doesn’t work that way.

“I kind of want to let things be themselves, even if that means that sometimes it might be boring, it might be very weird, it might not do what I expect to happen,” said Audry, who is on the same panel as Parrish.

One of his recent robotic installations, Vessels, is comprised of autonomous water vehicles. The vehicles can sense their environment and interact with it and one another, resembling social interactions found in communities of living creatures. But they are only autonomous to a degree. They run on batteries that need to be recharged and can’t be left outdoors for long periods of time.

“It’s not autonomy in the sense that engineers would think about autonomy,” said Audry. “More like autonomous in the way they can express themselves and generate a form of behaviour that is beyond my grounds.”

Stec said he hopes this event will make ideas, such as those being presented by Parrish and Audry, accessible without simplifying them and bridge the worlds of artists, researchers and the general public.

“We were inspired to organize this event because we saw artists making interesting and important work in this area, but also we have been watching the conversation about AI and machine learning advance without much input or engagement with the creative and artistic community,” said Stec.

“These are systems largely developed by engineers of various kinds and we wondered what artists might have to contribute to this important conversation about AI and society,” said Stec.

For Audry, he wants to know “what kind of AI can artists make, how is that different from what scientists and engineers do and want to do with AI?”

Parrish said this conversation is important to her as an instructor who teaches students how to program computers.

“I feel like I do need to impart upon new programmers an idea of the ethics of computer programming and working with data and realizing that a computer program is a way of amplifying responsibility, not negating it,” said Parrish.

“As a citizen, as a responsible member of a democracy in shambles, I feel like it’s my responsibility to be informed about these issues so that I know how to people are being manipulated, and all the ways that those technologies can be used. Not just so that I can recognize when they’re being abused, but also so I can apply them in socially conscious ways to make the world better,” Parrish said.

This story was produced in collaboration with Centretown News and Carleton University.

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