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Is AI Art a 'Toy' or a 'Weapon'? – The Atlantic

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Earlier this year, the technology company OpenAI released a program called DALL-E 2, which uses artificial intelligence to transform text into visual art. People enter prompts (“plasticine nerd working on a 1980s computer”) and the software returns images that showcase humanlike vision and execution, veer into the bizarre, and might even tease creativity. The results were good enough for Cosmopolitan, which published the first-ever AI-generated magazine cover in June—an image of an astronaut swaggering over the surface of Mars—and they were good enough for the Colorado State Fair, which awarded an AI artwork first place in a fine-art competition.

OpenAI gave more and more people access to its program, and those who remained locked out turned to alternatives like Craiyon and Midjourney. Soon, AI artwork seemed to be everywhere, and people started to worry about its impacts. Trained on hundreds of millions of image-text pairs, these programs’ technical details are opaque to the general public—more black boxes in a tech ecosystem that’s full of them. Some worry they might threaten the livelihoods of artists, provide new and relatively easy ways to generate propaganda and deepfakes, and perpetuate biases.

Yet Jason Scott, an archivist at the Internet Archive, prolific explorer of AI art programs, and traditional artist himself, says he is “no more scared of this than I am of the fill tool”—a reference to the feature in computer paint programs that allows a user to flood a space with color or patterns. In a conversation at The Atlantic Festival with Adrienne LaFrance, The Atlantic’s executive editor, Scott discussed his quest to understand how these programs “see.” He called them “toys” and “parlor game[s],” and did a live demonstration of DALL-E 2, testing prompts such as “the moment the dinosaurs went extinct illustrated in Art Nouveau style” or “Chewbacca on the cover of The Atlantic magazine in the style of a Renaissance painting” (the latter of which resulted in images that looked more canine than Wookiee). Scott isn’t naive about the greater issues at play—“Everything has a potential to be used as a weapon”—but at least for a moment, he showed us that the tech need not be apocalyptic.

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Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Watch: Atlantic executive editor Adrienne LaFrance in conversation with Jason Scott


Adrienne LaFrance: When we talk about AI art, what do we even mean? How does it work?

Jason Scott: So what we’re calling “AI art”—by the way, they’re now calling it “synthetic media”—it’s the idea of using analysis of deep ranges of images, not just looking at them as patterns or samples, but actually connecting their captions and their contexts up against pictures of all sorts, and then synthesizing new versions from all that.

LaFrance: So basically a giant database of images that can be drawn from to call to mind the thing that you prompt it to make.

Scott: Right.

LaFrance: And why is it exploding now? It seems like various forms of machine learning and AI have really accelerated in recent years.

Scott: They let it out of the lab and let regular people play with the toys. Across the companies that are doing this, some are taking the model of We’ll let everyone play with it now—it’s part of the world.

LaFrance: When you think about the implications for this sort of technology, give us an overview of how this is going to change the way we interact with art, or whatever other industries come to mind. For instance, at The Atlantic we have human artists making art. I’m sure they might have strong feelings about the idea of machines making art. What other industries would be potentially affected?

Scott: Machines are becoming more and more capable of doing analysis against images, text, music, movies. There are experimental search engines out there that you can play with and say things like “I need to see three people around a laptop.” And previously it would have to be three people in the laptop, but it actually is starting to make matches where there’s three people in the room. And the weirder and more creative you get with this toy, the more fun it gets. I see a future where you’ll be able to say, “Could I read a book from the 1930s where it’s got a happy ending and it takes place in Boston?” Or, “Can I have something where they fell in love but they’re not in love at the end?”

LaFrance: I have more questions, but I think now it’d be a good time to start showing people what we mean. Do you have some examples?

Scott: I have some examples of things that I did. So this is “detailed blueprints on how to build a beagle.”

LaFrance: So these are prompts that you gave the model, and this is what came out of it?

Scott: Yes. For the people who don’t know how this whole game works, it’s pretty weird. You usually type in some sort of a line to say, “I’m looking for something like this,” and then it creates that, and then people get more and more detailed, because they’re trying to push it. Think of it less as programming than saying to somebody, “Could you go out there and dance like you’re happy and your kid was just born?” And you’ll watch what happens. So it’s kind of amorphous. This is a lion using a laptop in the style of an old tapestry. This is Santa Claus riding a motorcycle in the style of 1970s Kodachrome. This is Godzilla at the signing of the Declaration of Independence. This is a crayon drawing of a labor action. These are bears doing podcasts. This is GoPro footage of the D-Day landing.

I’m always playing with it, and the reason you’re hearing all those strange prompts from me is because I want to understand: What are these systems seeing? What are they doing? It’s so easy as a parlor game to say, “Draw a cellphone as if it was done as a Greco-Roman statue.” But what about doing a bittersweet sky, or trying to draw a concerned highway? What does it see?

LaFrance: What does this suggest to you about the nature of art? This gets to be sort of an existential question, but is it still human-made art in the way that we think of it, and should we be bothered by that? I mean, we use all sorts of tools to make art.

Scott: Everyone is super entitled to their own opinion. All I can say is, I did drawings in a zine in my teens; I was a street caricaturist; my mother was a painter; my father does painting; my brother’s a landscape artist. And coming from that point of view, I am no more scared of this than I am of the fill tool or the clone brush [in Photoshop]. Everything has a potential to be used as a weapon—imagery, words, music, text. But we also see an opportunity here for people who never knew that they had access to art. I can almost hear the gears crack and start moving again when I go to somebody and I’m like, “Could you give me something to draw?” And they do it and they see how it goes. I can’t get angry at that particular toy. But I won’t pretend that this toy will stay in its own way neutral, or even is neutral now.

LaFrance: I was talking to a colleague about these sorts of tools the other week, and we were really compelled by the idea of being able to visualize dreams. What other sorts of things—fiction comes to mind—can we imagine but don’t normally get to visualize?

Scott: I love telling these AIs to draw “exquisite lattice work”—using phrases like exquisite or rare—or give me “leather with gold inlay on a toaster,” and watching it move into that world and design things in seconds that aren’t perfect, but are fun.

LaFrance: We’re going to experiment, which is always dangerous. You’re never supposed to do stuff in real time. But I have some prompts for you.

Scott: This is DALL-E. There are many others. Think of it just like early web servers or early web browsers. There’s a bunch of companies with various people funding them or doing things their own way.

[Scott now leads LaFrance through a demonstration of DALL-E 2: It’s included in the video embedded above.]

Scott: We see the ability to do everything from intricate pen-and-ink drawings to cartoons. People are using it now to make all sorts of textures for video games; they are making art along a theme that they need to cover an entire wall of a coffee shop; they’re using it to illustrate their works. People are trying all sorts of things with this technology and are excited by it.

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How Viola Desmond's salon space has been reimagined through art – CBC.ca

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Those walking along Gottingen Street in Halifax can now step into an art space created to honour civil rights activist Viola Desmond.

The Viola Desmond Experience was created by artist Marven Nelligan and was unveiled last week.

It is part of the Viola Desmond Legacy Art Project committee, created a few years ago to commemorate Desmond’s life before she became known for her activism.

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Desmond, a Black beautician and businesswoman, was arrested in 1946 while watching a movie in the whites-only section of the theatre in New Glasgow, N.S.

The display is right beside the Blue Collar Barbershop and The Braiding Lounge. (Anam Khan/CBC)
Visitors are welcome to sit on the salon chair. (Anam Khan/CBC)

The exhibit is located right between The Braiding Lounge and Blue Collar Barbershop. Onlookers are often seen stopping and taking photos.

The space has a large mirror on the wall facing the street. The floor has an adhesive covering that looks like wood.

The wall has a picture of Desmond looking on while women chat, get their hair washed, and read The Clarion, Nova Scotia’s first and only Black newspaper.

A dresser painted on the wall has a photo of Desmond and her sister, Wanda Robson, who championed her sister’s legacy.

There is a salon chair in the middle of the exhibit. Visitors are welcome to take a seat.

“A lot of people don’t really know the achievements of Viola Desmond and the things that she accomplished through her career long before she was a civil rights icon,” said Nelligan. 

Virtual experience in the works

He said the group is also working to add a virtual component to the exhibit. Participants will be able to scan a QR code and see a lookalike of Desmond behind them sharing her story.

“She was an entrepreneur, she was a businesswoman, she was a Black businesswoman, she made products, she was a manufacturer, she was an educator,” said Tara Taylor, who owns The Braiding Lounge and is on the art project committee.

“So, she not only learned her craft, she taught her craft to other Black women in the community. And that’s what we want people to remember her for.”

There is a photo of Wanda Robson, left, and Robson and Desmond in their younger years. (Paul Légère/CBC)
Tara Taylor owns The Braiding Lounge. (Paul Légère/CBC)

Taylor said she was proud to see the space open right beside her business. Desmond’s original salon was nearby.

“I’m extremely inspired by what she did in her community at the time,” said Taylor.

“Back then she was pretty much considered almost a millionaire. And so I just want to embody all of the things that she meant to her community.”

Taylor said the committee plans to share the virtual experience with New Glasgow.

Five hands raised in a fist in Being Black in Canada logo
(CBC)

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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New Canton art: ceramic animals, Kat and 'Monster Steve,' still life – Canton Repository

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CANTON − New exhibitions at the Canton Museum of Art showcase artistically precise ceramics, the vivid realism of a nationally showcased artist, and the wildly imaginative paintings of two local artists.

Opening last week, the winter exhibitions will be on display through March 5.

A free public reception will be 5 to 7 p.m. Dec. 2 at the art museum during First Friday activities in downtown Canton. Visitors will have an opportunity to meet exhibiting artists and receive a balloon animal from local artist “Jumpin’ Jelly Bean,” said Danielle Attar, the museum’s marketing and events director.

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Light hors d’oeuvres will be served, and a cash bar will be available. Admission also will be free during extended hours from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Dec. 2 in conjunction with First Friday.

More:Artist couple: ‘We both like making things’

What’s new at the Canton Museum of Art?

New exhibitions include the ceramic works of more than 50 artists in “Thinking With Animals”; the “dream world” paintings and mixed media artwork of “Potion Park: The Kaleidoscopic Garden of Steve Ehret and Kat Francis“; and “Right Place, Right Time: Paintings by Robert Coleman Jackson,” a contemporary still life artist whose work has been showcased in galleries and museums across the country, including at the Delaware Art Museum and South Dakota Art Museum, as well as in the homes of collectors worldwide and in various corporate collections.

Another showcase is “Color Wonder: From the CMA Collection,” which features “some of the brightest and boldest examples” from the museum’s collection, where viewers “learn to decode the messages that different colors send in art,” the museum said in a news release.

More:‘Very strange even by my standards.’ Canton artists paint quirky images at Condado Tacos

Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. The museum is closed Mondays, as well as on Christmas, Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

Admission is free on Thursdays through a sponsorship by the PNC Foundation. The museum is at 1001 Market Ave. N.

Tickets are available at the museum during gallery hours. Admission is $8 for adults and $6 for senior citizens. Children 12 and under are admitted free. Blue Star families are free with a valid ID. More ticket information is available at https://www.cantonart.org.

The museum can be reached at 330-453-7666.

Moss spreading on a tree, plants reaching toward the sun

Ehret and Francis’ work is displayed in the Milligan Gallery.

Francis’ art is “created by collage-like assemblage of realities, to portray memory, attitude on contemporary culture, personal experience and reflections on society,” the museum said in a news release. Her work blends “urban landscape along with real life experiences.”

Francis graduated with master of fine arts degrees from Columbus College of Art & Design and Ohio State University.

Ehret, a self-taught painter also known as “Monster Steve,” is inspired by the natural world he sees during trail runs throughout the year.

“He makes careful observations of moss spreading over a fallen tree, or plants reaching towards the sun,” the museum said, noting such experiences inspire the phantasmal settings of his paintings.

More:‘There’s only your art’: Canton museum uses creativity to bond, heal, connect

Sculptures of prehistoric animals on display

“Thinking with Animals” features the creations of Taylor Robenalt, Ariel Bowman, Shelsea Dodd and many others.

The artists “are a diverse representation of gender identity, culture, backgrounds, and career stages,” the museum said. The range of building techniques demonstrated includes slip casting, paper clay, solid building, hollow building, wheel throwing and mixed media.

Ceramic pieces are an example of how animal symbolism provides a “universally understood way to examine ideas that may be difficult to discuss or understand in any other form.”

In 2020, the Canton Museum of Art hosted Robenalt’s solo exhibition, “Symbolic Narrative.” Bowman creates sculptures of prehistoric animals.

“My work uses reflective nostalgia to present the animals in my own fantasy of an imagined place and time,” Bowman writes on her website.

Balloon dogs, food, toys, assorted props inspire art

Jackson worked as an electrical engineer for Motorola and then as an assistant pastor before working full-time as an artist.

He also authored the 2014 publication “Behind the Easel,” which explores the unique voices of 20 contemporary representational painters.

Jackson’s work is both comedy and drama through realism in bright colors and an amusing narrative, the museum explained. Painting subjects include balloon dogs, food, toys, books and assorted props.

Reach Ed at 330-580-8315 and ebalint@gannett.com. On Twitter: @ebalintREP.

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Pearl Lam and Basma Al Sulaiman on their feisty, art-fuelled friendship – Financial Times

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We met because Basma and one of my friends shared a divorce lawyer!” Gallerist Pearl Lam and her friend Basma Al Sulaiman laugh heartily as they sit in Al Sulaiman’s impressively appointed, art-filled London home. Lam recalls their first encounter around 2004 as they sip tea: “The lawyer introduced my friend to Basma and said, ‘If you collect Chinese art, you must meet Pearl.’”

With her gravity-defying purple bob – paired when we meet with a lemon-yellow jumper – Lam has been involved in the Chinese art world for nearly 30 years. In 1993, she began collecting Chinese art; in 2005, she opened her first physical space in Shanghai and since 2012 has had a second Pearl Lam Galleries space in her hometown of Hong Kong, representing homegrown and international artists from pioneering Chinese abstract painter Zhu Jinshi to British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare. 

The duo in front of Hamdi & Hamada, 2009, by Adel El Siwi
The duo in front of Hamdi & Hamada, 2009, by Adel El Siwi © Joshua Tarn

Saudi Arabia-born Al Sulaiman, meanwhile, began collecting contemporary art in the 1990s. Her first purchase was a Hockney, and today she owns more than 800 works ranging from high-profile international artists such as Ai Weiwei, Tracey Emin and Andy Warhol to Saudi artists. In 2000 she moved to London and completed a diploma in modern and contemporary art from Christie’s Education. It was then that she became interested in Chinese art. “A Saudi collecting Chinese art!” explodes Lam. “You know? It was so strange to me. And she was buying political pop art.” She shakes her head. “I thought, ‘Why?!’”

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“Because it was different from what I’d been seeing; it was fresh, it was human, it was real,” says Al Sulaiman, who has never worked with an art adviser and was introduced to Chinese art through a friend. “He called me and said, ‘Basma, there’s this amazing artist, I love his work but it’s too big for my house, would you be interested to see it?’” The artist was Beijing-based Yue Minjun, now famous for his “Cynical Realist” oil paintings depicting himself laughing, his face frozen in a demonic grin. Al Sulaiman bought the painting Face on the Land in 2003 for £40,000. In 2007, when Sotheby’s London auctioned Yue’s seminal 1995 work inspired by the Tiananmen Square massacre, Execution, it sold for a record-breaking £2.9mn – the highest price for a contemporary Chinese artwork at the time. 

“People started to buy contemporary Chinese art in 1995,” explains Lam. “In the early 2000s – when Basma was there – it was just a very interesting, exciting time. There was this vibrant art scene, the government had not endorsed it, and there were only a handful of Chinese collectors – so tourists were going there to buy art as a souvenir, because the prices were low. After about 2006, though, it went crazy.” Before then, Al Sulaiman would travel to China regularly, discovering artists while visiting her daughter, who was working in Shanghai. But she met Lam for the first time at a dinner in London. The two clicked straight away – but more because of what they didn’t agree on than what they did, says Lam. “Basma loves political pop; I don’t. I consider political pop to be the western definition of Chinese contemporary art. And Basma likes figurative art; I don’t. But when you’re talking about art, it’s much better to have two different opinions,” she says. 

The first piece Al Sulaiman bought from Lam was by Shao Fan – “a deconstructed Chinese chair, put together as a sculpture. And eventually, she bought Chinese abstracts,” says Lam, referencing two works in Al Sulaiman’s home by Beijing-based Zhu Jinshi, a pioneer of Chinese abstract painting who cakes his canvases in heavy, impasto layers. “He uses a shovel to throw on the paint,” says Al Sulaiman, standing in front of a large-scale triptych that she bought in 2015. “It’s so beautiful. When you think about it as a landscape, you can see it, you can feel it.” 

In fact, abstraction is well represented in her home, and two minimalist, multi-frame works command the living space: the first, consisting of nine pink Plexiglas squares, is by French conceptualist Daniel Buren (Framed Colours, 9 Magenta Elements, 2007), and the other is a series of bi-colour paintings (Hommage à Le Corbusier, 2000) by German modernist Günther Förg. At the other end of the room is a huge work by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, its undulating, nearly 5m-high form constructed from bottle tops pieced together with copper wire. “I bought it in 2012, but only when I moved in here in May was I able to see it,” she says. “It’s one of the reasons I bought this place: I needed big walls.” The art is all displayed, slightly incongruously, alongside 18th-century antique furniture – from France, Italy and England – and French Aubusson tapestries. “Pearl doesn’t like my carpets,” Al Sulaiman smiles. 

Tea and cake served on Herend porcelain
Tea and cake served on Herend porcelain © Joshua Tarn

The other place where Al Sulaiman’s collection lives is online. In 2011, she launched Basmoca, a virtual museum that can be walked around via an avatar. “I wanted eagerly to share the collection but the concept of building a physical space back home in Saudi Arabia was a bit difficult at that time,” she recalls. Instead, she explored the idea of creating a space within the online multimedia platform Second Life, but eventually built her own virtual world. 

“Basically, Basma was doing metaverse before anyone else was doing metaverse,” says Lam. “But it was like gibberish to people,” adds Al Sulaiman. “Nobody understood it at that time, it was way too early. Now, of course, everybody is doing it.” Earlier this year, she showed a portion of her Saudi art collection in a physical space – inside Maraya, a striking, mirrored building in Saudi Arabia’s historic desert canyon site AlUla. 

Al Sulaiman has also dipped her toe in NFTs. She points to a screen on the wall. “It resembles Monet’s Water Lilies,” she says of the digital work by Italian artist Davide Quayola, which plays on a loop and is surrounded by a wall of portraits – most are “classical”, but there is one with a cat’s head. “It’s supposed to be Mao,” she says of the painting by Shanghai-born artist Qiu Jie. 

Little Red Book Series – 192 ceramic pieces by Xu Yihui
Little Red Book Series – 192 ceramic pieces by Xu Yihui © Joshua Tarn

“It’s unusual for traditional art collectors to buy NFTs because they have no museum credentials,” suggests Lam, adding the cryptocurrency crash earlier this year has led to a weaker market for NFTs, but that they still have a role to play for a younger generation of artists and collectors. “There are young artists selling NFTs for $50 or $100. This is democratised art. And if it’s not NFT, another mode of technology will emerge.”

One of the artists Lam represents is London-based Philip Colbert, a self-titled “pioneer of the metaverse” who this year launched NFT project The Lobstars. And an artist Lam is keen to introduce to Al Sulaiman is Mr Doodle, aka British artist Sam Cox, who recently covered his entire Kent home in his graphic, graffiti-like imagery; the stop-motion video of the process has been watched nearly 2mn times on YouTube. “I did check him out after you told me,” says Al Sulaiman to her friend. “It’s very different. Interesting…” 

“I know some of these things are not your aesthetic,” says Lam, “but I think it’s interesting because this is the new generation of artists. Our minds should be very open – my gallery mission is about cultural exchange.” 

Both women describe each other as “open-minded”, and they often travel together, visiting art fairs and discovering new artists. A few years ago they went to Japan – to Tokyo and the island of Naoshima – with friends. Earlier this year they took a trip to Saudi Arabia – a first for Lam. They’ve also recently uncovered an artist they’re equally passionate about: Maha Malluh. “Her work is all about found objects, about reminiscing and history,” says Al Sulaiman, walking over to a sculpture constructed from old enamelled cooking pots. Another artist they agree on is Babajide Olatunji, who they came across at the Art Dubai fair, and whose work Lam bought on the spot – a charcoal and pastel portrait that is hyperrealistic yet depicts an imagined sitter. Lam will showcase the Nigerian artist at her Shanghai space next year, while another of his drawings has made it on to Al Sulaiman’s walls (via Sotheby’s, for £10,000). 

Other works in Al Sulaiman’s collection include figurative paintings by Egyptian artist Adel El Siwi (Hamdi & Hamada, 2009) and Norfolk-based Jonathan Wateridge. But just as Lam considers herself a conduit for a diverse cross-section of artists in China, Al Sulaiman’s ultimate dream is to bring her eclectic collection to a permanent space in Saudi Arabia, where in 2014 she became the first woman to receive an award from the government for her contributions to the country’s art and cultural spheres. “Culture is a bond,” she concludes. “It bonds people in a special language that doesn’t need a translation.”

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