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AI art replicates inequity at scale. We need to learn about its biases – and outsmart the algorithm



In 1840, the French painter Paul Delaroche saw the first daguerreotype – an early photographic process – and proclaimed that “from today, painting is dead”. One can understand him feeling threatened by the technology, but we know now he was dead wrong: instead, that year marked the birth of the art of photography.

Throughout history, there’s been fierce debate about the demarcation between science and the arts. It continues in the form of the great AI debate. In February this year, the winning photo in an Australian photography competition was created entirely by artificial intelligence; months earlier, a man used text-to-image software to take out the top prize in the Colorado Art Fair; and in 2018, a rudimentary painting produced by AI sold through Christie’s for US$432,500.

Late last year, in the remote Huon Valley in Tasmania, a freelance visual designer was inspired to experiment. Meng Koach had been commissioned by a publishing house to create a cover image for my new book about bias in artificial intelligence.

Through the eyes of a 55-year-old journalist like myself, this is a brave new world. A contentious and controversial world. There’s a long history of legislation and regulation trailing advances in technology.


The process is exciting and terrifying. Koach typed words into Midjourney AI, which runs on Discord – a gaming platform I’m familiar with from several screaming matches with one of my teens. “Ghosts in the machine.” “A cybernetic forest.” “The bias of the past being built into the future.” These fragments make scant sense out of context. But they’re enough to construct a book cover within seconds.

Man-Made, a book by Tracey Spicer, is out in May 2023

The software uses billions of online images, identified by digital labelling from innovations like alt text. But the question remains: do AI art generators copy or steal other artists’ work?

“Unlike copying/stealing, there’s also taking inspiration,” Koach contends. “This subconscious accumulation of seeing and remembering art from other artists will, at one point, become apparent and trigger inspiration. Isn’t this the machine’s way of ‘taking inspiration’?”

The artistic community seems split. Some celebrate the removal of barriers into this rarefied realm; anyone can be an artist these days. Others are joining class actions, accusing the tech companies of appropriating art without credit, consent or compensation.

As a journalist, I’m fascinated but horrified by these developments. My book rails against the prospect of automation displacing millions of jobs. Still, this is a crucial conversation to be having right now. Technology continues to trample the media landscape. Even respected magazines such as The Economist are using AI to create artwork.

But using these programs is not as simple as it seems. While Koach was “shocked” at how quickly the initial cover images appeared, they didn’t quite convey the themes of the book. And as we added in new prompts – “artificial intelligence designed by man”; “back to the 1950s”; “strong women working together” – a different problem emerged. Female robots were sexualised with large breasts and tiny waists. The algorithm misinterpreted “strong women” as “massive biceps”.

My book, Man-Made, is about stereotypical images and words in datasets being used to train algorithms. These baby biases become troublesome teenagers through machine learning. The bots are increasingly bigoted, like white supremacists neck-deep in conspiracy theory websites.

Apps like Stable Diffusion, Dall-E and Midjourney can imagine a deserted island in the style of Monet. But if you ask for images of a CEO, it’s generally an older white male. Nurses? Almost all female. And if you don’t specify skin colour, the bots default to white people.

While humans are inherently biased, technology is replicating inequity at scale. We need to master this technology before it enslaves us.

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Koach is keen to reframe AI art as simply another design tool. “The artist and the technology are intertwined throughout the creative process,” he says, and new roles are popping up in the sector too. Prompt Driver, anyone …?

Technology tends to move in one direction: its owners amass obscene profits while ethics is a mere afterthought. So what of the copyright issues? According to the Arts Law Centre of Australia, it’s still unclear. There are calls for AI models to be trained only on images in the public domain. As an ex-TV type, watermarks spring to mind as a way to prove ownership of digital content.

This debate isn’t new. The first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace, predicted the technological creation of art when she wrote about the idea of “poetical science” in the 1840s.

This was the same decade Paul Delaroche declared painting to be mort – but instead we saw the emergence of new genres of painting, such as impressionism. There was a shift in how people approached art.

Koach looks to the past for a hopeful take on the future: “AI art might shift our values away from, ‘Does this image have all the colours, compositions and styles that I want?’ to, ‘Is this image meaningful or special in some other way?’.”

But if we want to live with this technology, we need to be proactive. Learn about the complexity and bias within AI and keep a close eye on where it’s going. Regulate the industry, to protect users and creators. And outsmart the algorithms.

  • Tracey Spicer’s book, Man-Made: How the bias of the past is being built into the future, is out May 2023

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Rubbish fashion: street art costumes of Kinshasa – in pictures – The Guardian



Falonne Mambu posing in her electric wires costume in Limete district, Kinshasa. As a performing artist, she raises issues about social development in her own country. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is potentially the biggest electricity provider in sub-Saharan Africa. Unfortunately, decay and corruption have crippled the national Inga dam, which only works to the minimum of its capacity. Nowadays, only 19% of Congolese people have access to electricity.

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Montreal artist won’t change puppet that community groups say looks like blackface



MONTREAL — A theatre performance for children featuring a puppet that has been described as racist is continuing in the Montreal area.

Several Black community organizations have criticized the puppet as being reminiscent of blackface minstrel shows — racist performances during which white people portrayed exaggerated stereotypes of Black people for laughs.

But the show’s creator — Franck Sylvestre, who is Black — has no plans to change the puppet, which he said is a caricature of his own features. Sylvestre said in an interview he can’t accept the idea that he’s not allowed to create a caricature of someone who is Black because racists created caricatures of Black people in the past.

“That’s unheard of for an artist,” he said.


The play, called L’incroyable secret de barbe noire — French for The Incredible Secret of Blackbeard — first drew controversy in February.

A performance at a municipal theatre in the Montreal suburb of Beaconsfield, Que., was cancelled after complaints by Black community organizations. The neighbouring community of Pointe-Claire, meanwhile, removed the play from its official Black History Month programming but allowed the performance to go ahead.

Sylvestre, who wrote the one-man show in 2009 aimed at kids aged five to nine years old, said he had never received a complaint about his show before February.

A series of performances of the play, which combines theatre, storytelling, masks and puppetry, begins Sunday in Laval, Que., he said, before he takes it to France for 30 performances.

Sylvestre said the play tells the story of a young man who travels from Montreal to Martinique — the Caribbean island where Sylvestre’s parents are from — at the request of his dying grandfather, who is haunted by his discovery of a mysterious wooden chest with a connection to the pirate Blackbeard.

Max Stanley Bazin, president of the Black Coalition of Quebec, describes the puppet’s appearance as “very, very, very ugly” and said he worries that seeing a Black person presented in such a way could cause emotional damage to young audiences.

“It will have an impact on them, it will have an impact on the mind of the young people who see this puppet, and that’s what we should think about,” he said in an interview.

People are more likely to speak out about racism now than they were in 2009, Bazin said, adding that he thinks Sylvestre should listen to community members and replace the puppet with a less controversial creation.

“If there are people in society who have said this isn’t right, you have to react,” he said.

Philip Howard, a professor in the department of integrated studies in education at McGill University, said he’s not sure the puppet is an example of blackface — but he said that’s beside the point.

“There is still very much the matter of representation and the potential use of monstrous and grotesque representations of Black people as a source of entertainment and even humour,” said Howard, who has studied contemporary blackface.

Howard said the intentions of the artist are less important than the impact of the performance on an audience.

“Here we have, in this particular instance, a whole community of folks that are responding and saying, ‘Wait a minute, we don’t love this, we don’t think this is OK and we’re particularly disturbed about it during Black History Month,’” he said.

Dismissing the opinions of Black people who have a problem with the performance demonstrates anti-Black racism, he said.

Sylvestre said he thinks much of the criticism comes from people who haven’t seen the play.

“It’s the job of the community to see what purpose these caricatures serve; are they, like blackface, denigrating Black people, or, as in my case, are they being elevated?” he said. “This character, he’s a strong character for me personally, and when I made it, I was inspired by myself.”

He said the puppet, named Max, is “like a great sage,” whose interventions lead to the play’s happy ending.

“Max, he was the voice of reason, he was the one who advised us, who mocked me when I made a bad decision, who was above me,” he said.

Prof. Cheryl Thompson, who teaches performance at Toronto Metropolitan University, said she didn’t like the puppet when she viewed a trailer for the play.

“I was extremely shocked,” she said. “I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

While blackface minstrel shows are primarily associated with the United States, Thompson’s research has shown that blackface performances took place in Canada, with shows in Montreal as recently as the 1950s.

Even though blackface originated with white performers, Black actors in the 1800s would also don the exaggerated makeup and participate in the racist performances for white audiences.

“It actually didn’t matter if it was a white actor in blackface or a Black actor in blackface, it was the caricature that audiences thought was funny,” she said.

Thompson said there’s room for theatre performances to be provocative. But performers, she said, need to engage with audiences and be willing to discuss artistic choices — especially when artists are performing for audiences whose histories might be different than their own.

“Why wouldn’t this person at least try to hear the voices of people who maybe have a different experience to him?” she said.

She said she wouldn’t take a child to see the show, especially during Black History Month.

“I just don’t see the uplifting messaging,” Thompson said. “I don’t see the messaging of ‘you matter,’ I just don’t see that celebration of life. I just see something that is steeped in a history of racial caricature and mimicry.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 25, 2023.


Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press

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Vancouver to remove unsanctioned spider art creeping-out transit riders



City staff are looking into how to remove a large metallic spider from under a high-traffic bridge on Commercial Drive in Vancouver.

The artwork, which startled some arachnophobic SkyTrain riders when it was installed earlier this month, was created by pop artist Junko Playtime.

In an email to Postmedia News on Friday, city staff say they were made aware of the unsanctioned spider artwork located in a corridor for SkyTrain and CN/BNSF Rail.

The installation wasn’t done in consultation with the city or the rail corridor partners, city staff said. They’re trying to figure out the best way to remove the artwork so there is no damage to the bridge structure or rail lines.


Staff said the artist will have the ability to claim the work through the city’s impoundment process.

According to Playtime’s Instagram page, the eight-foot-diameter spider was installed at night recently on the north bank below the bridge between North Grandview Highway and Broadway.

Playtime, from Montreal, has gained a reputation over the past two years for installing very large and far-out insect like futuristic sculptures from scrap metal and household items.

The artist called this latest spider creation “Phobia 2023. Time to face our fears.”

— With files from David Carrigg


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