Pretend I’m a seashell

There are moments when I wish I was a seashell, so that you could press your ear against my chest, and listen to my story. I guess, this time I will have to write it down.

I am seven. The grass is wet against my bare feet and it feels like walking on a moist carpet. My mother is behind me, clinching to a blue backpack filled with mushrooms and dirt. She holds my hand and we share bright green moss while trying not to slip. I change paths. The ants are building a bigger house this year and I know now not to bother them during construction. The others are far ahead, legs moving like spiders, frantically searching for the best one, the biggest one. Tonight, we will have mushroom risotto for dinner. I see a red organic stain amid an ocean of grass. I found one. I did it. I won. I put my little hands around it. It’s poisonous. I hear a click. The picture hangs in the corridor next to the toilet.

I am ten. We are standing in front of the TV. Captain Kirk is walking alone in a dark cave. The music is pounding in my ears and something tells me I should really look away right now. I shake in the leather armchair and I stare at the corner of the screen. But then, nothing happens, he keeps walking. Square metal boxes keep floating through space, Borgs inside of them, waiting for the perfect moment to turn the Enterprise into steel, to hide shards of aluminium into the crew’s fleshy skulls. I look at my legs, blonde thin hair standing like morning chickens, and for a split second I forget I am not a duck. I shiver, and I think of the moment when my skin will stop being skin, and my eyes will turn into lenses. I breathe in. The scene passes.

I am fifteen. I can see trees from my kitchen window, they seem to be dancing to the rhythm of a song. All uniquely cropped by the roofs of grey houses. The tablecloth has tiny red trees on it and too many stains of wine. Someone is talking about moths, or spiders, or beetles. They say the snow is not the same this year. The tracks have opened up but you can see the stones beneath them. Nothing is the same anymore. The tourists are crowding the village and they keep leaving tissues in the woods. Maybe next year will be better. Maybe there will be more snow. It is just like ten years ago, they say. Why linger over the sun’s warmth, when you can just sit outside and tan?

I am eighteen. I open the door to my parent’s bedroom, breathless. The corridor is long and I did it all galloping like an over-excited pony. I tell them I am going to become a photographer. My mother disapproves. Why waste such a good brain on something so pointless like pulling triggers? My father, sweetened by a life of collecting old cameras, agrees. After all, my bedroom used to be his darkroom, and so if I got such silly ideas in my head, it has to be his fault. Maybe, the chemicals have penetrated into the thin walls, and got into my lungs. Maybe, I am part developer, part fixer. I am afraid I will never learn how to stop.

I am twenty-one. I am sitting on a living room floor in an apartment on the highest floor, overlooking Vancouver. You are tuning a guitar with an app on your phone. You look at me and then you say that art is everything, so I close my eyes and listen. Then, you say that code is art, and I look at you and wonder. There is an ocean between us. I feel it every time you sit and disappear into your keyboard tapping language into numbers, and I am not sure I understand. You say that when you moved into this skyscraper of a house the walls were all white and empty, so you went on and decided it was better to cover them up. Now, five crooked posters are hanging, plastic images of virtual universes you call art. I linger on creating another reason to differ. You say there was one picture in the flat before, and it was truly horrid, while you point at a Mondrian leaning against the corner of the couch. You say that is not art.

When they ask me why I am here now, making cubes out of paper and hoping to turn code into plants, the fragments of you merge with dirty mushrooms and wet grass. This year the snow did not fall, but the ski tracks opened up anyway. They say the ants have moved away, and that the moss is suffocating under layers of cement. I am sure you are still typing away, and that your skyscraper is now filled with more images of universes where the weather never changes. In this one though, the stains of red wine are starting to cover the whole house and the real Borgs have begun putting chips into monkeys, forgetting they are chimps themselves.

Sometimes, I still wonder whether Captain Kirk was ever really alone in that cave, whether the scare chord was his alarm call and he was just trying to warn us that something in that den was crawling inside us too. Maybe those metal boxes were hovering over us, and the Enterprise was safe all along. Maybe we weren’t. They say there is a difference between stories and reality. I disagree. There is nothing more real than a story we have repeated too many times.

Most of the time, I sit and think of the words that I could have said back then, to convince you that art was not just lines traced onto paper or the clicking of a shutter. And yet, there are stories you spend your whole life writing, and poems you never stop reciting. I think mine got mixed up with yours, and with the feeling of the wind blowing angrily on snow. Now, I try to make art that stops it. I hold my hands above my head and whisper to the starships. I walk barefoot on grass and use my phone to film it. I spread paint all over paper and wait for it to fill me.

When you met me, I thought art and science were enemies that I had to keep apart. I chose to write with images and picked a fresh new start. There were writers in my family and books already piling up, so I thought there was no space for me to add. I used to walk around the streets spying on strangers through a hole, then I used to steal their faces hoping it would fill my soul. Now, I look down at the pavement and hope to see a crack, then I make myself an ant and enter the blue backpack. I often thought of bright moss and hoped to see through stone, then lost myself in TV screens and thought I was alone. I hope I can convince you now that I was not me yet, that the camera I was holding was just a box and not an eye yet; that the lines I traced on paper were not the start of sentences, and that when I closed my eyes back then, I did not get trapped in places.

Now, I stopped to fear the big black square and the metal shards of progress, I just sit down and look at chairs and call this one my process. I try to write new stories and dilute your code with water. I mix chemicals with hair dye and steal algorithms from others. I started shooting pictures and printing them on paper, but then I lost reality and exchanged them all for fakers. I am tired of restrictions and rules should be updated. I use this space to question if the time has come to change them. I don’t believe in mediums, or boundaries or boxes. There is no time to stick to plans and if there were we’d waste it.

If you were here right now, you would see how much I upgraded, but my skin is not a metal cage and I am not sure who made it. I want to chase the wind again and jump into cold rivers, and yet I hope to see you there and trust this skin that shivers. I am glad you folks out there are in a world of code, but I hope there will be space again to improve this one we hold.

On AiArt

You are alone in a dimly lit room. A screen flickers in front of you. Then, two images appear. Relying solely on your eyes and your experiences, you must decide which one is generated by a machine and which one is made by a human. If you cannot tell one from the other, your failure proves that machines can create art.

I see you struggling out there, scratching your head, focusing on traces of reality in the blue of the sea. Just stop, there is no point in trying. The riddle was worded wrong all along, and it was not me who made it. We are in the year 1950 when an English mathematician imagines a similar scenario. There is a human interrogator in a room, facing two computer terminals. He interacts with two entities on the outside through written messages alone. After a while, he is asked to guess which one of them is human. If he fails, that implies machines can think. That man, who inadvertently set the agenda for artificial intelligence for the next decade, was Alan Turing, and by asking us to distinguish a man from a machine, he ended up labelling what it is to be human as a floating box of circuits. He was so fascinated by brains, that he forgot they were contained in bodies, and by doing so, he set the stage for the erasure of embodiment at the basis of our current definitions of intelligence, and therefore of humans. By labelling intelligence as the manipulation of informational patterns, Turing contributed to the formulation of information as a bodiless fluid, and therefore of human identity as a mere informational pattern. An idea that inspired some radical propositions, like Hans Moravec’s belief that the assumption could be demonstrated by downloading consciousness into computers, without the loss of any meaning or form.

In the years that followed, many logicians and philosophers proposed counter-arguments to Turing’s test, with the most famous being the so-called Chinese Room by John Searle. In his thought experiment, he argued that imitating intelligence would not imply possessing it, and by distinguishing mimicking from being, Searle delineated two different forms of artificial intelligence, and he called them ‘strong’ and ‘weak’. The first one implies that the machine is equal to a human mind, and the latter, that it is a mere tool in its understanding. Following Searle’s categorisation, most of the progress we have achieved since the 1950s in terms of artificial intelligence belongs to the second category, which is now labeled ‘narrow AI’, alluding to the computer’s ability to only perform one task at a time. I will argue that this same counter-claim is a helpful tool to solve my initial riddle, and therefore modern controversies on the so-called AiArt. But let’s go back a bit. What is AI after all?

Although artificial intelligence is now at the basis of most of our daily processes, attempting a comprehensive definition is a hopeless task. If we have to try, then we can describe it as an expanding scientific field aimed at the development of adaptive and autonomous machines emulating forms of human intelligence. AI is what powers self-driving cars, or your favourite social media platform; even your laundry machine at this point. It is the brick at the base of reality, the new hidden bit behind the veil of appearances, the one that no one fully understands. Within the past twenty years, it has made breakthroughs in various technologies, such as computer vision, speech recognition, and machine language processing. With the advance of AI applied to most industries, many have begun creatively exploring its possibilities by engaging with the latest techniques, such as deep learning and neural networks. In the last decade, several AI image generators, like DALL-E or Stable Diffusion, have been released; and with the advent of these open platforms, code-powered images can be generated by the click of a button, or the prompt of a sentence, by literally anyone, at any time. Here is where the controversies begin, and many ask whether we are at a point of rupture, or just witnessing the development of a brand new artistic tool.

Some argue that every time a new technology is invented, it is integrated into the art world in progressive waves, take photography as an example. First, the medium threatens old media and the artist, then it becomes the subject of the artworks, and finally, it is either integrated or discarded. When photography was born, many thought it was the end of painting, some screamed in despair and labeled it the end of art itself. And yet, we came to the conclusion it was just another tool, like pigments or the printing press. Many see even more parallels with the early days of photography in AI’s vain attempt at mimicry. They argue there is a difference in scope between human and machine creativity. Computers can create images, even in ways we don’t yet understand, but there will never be any soul in them unless there is a human-machine symbiosis. They label this a new form of ‘statistical creativity’, limited to data sets and restricted by the lack of human intent. Not a step-change into making art, but just a new technology that will bring us closer to human- machine complementarity. They say the only real impact of AI applied to the arts is making us question what creativity is after all. I argue that’s the case. And yet, others are questioning the impact of artificial intelligence on the art world and believe that it is still unclear. Although there are similarities between current ML art and the computer art of the ‘60s and ‘70s, there is something radically new in it. It is not just a new tool sparking creativity, or the latest form of a century-long trend in automation. It is instead the start of a fresh new form of art, AiArt, far superior to all that came before. Let’s now delve into a short journey into the development of this revolutionary art form.

It all began in the ‘60s and ‘70s when computer art first bloomed. Its pioneers, artists like Vera Molnar and Frieder Nake, set out to harness the potential of early computers against the very notion of control to produce unexpected results, making glitches and misunderstandings a new form of art. Then, from the 20th century to the early days of the 21st century, AiArt truly commenced. The date is May 11, 1997. A big blue box called Deep Blue beats the Russian champion, Kasparov, in a game of chess, the true symbol of human intelligence. The Computer Age has begun. New human-computer technologies bloom and some sense of a shift with the previous trends in automation. From then on, AiArt takes centre stage. In 2016 Google develops a new kind of robot, AlphaGo, that defeats the Go champion Shishi Li, showcasing the real potential of artificial intelligence in a real-life scenario. Then, in 2016, following a new trend in ‘Deep Leaning’ — a new kind of AI algorithms — Google develops a new neural network, ‘Deep Dream’, the first Generative Adversarial Network (GAN) able to mimic traditional paintings. Only one year after, the first Creative Adversarial Network (CAN) is produced, a program not only able to imitate artworks, but to create them. And here we are now, in 2022, in the age of creative machines and AI-generated images.

Now, you might be wondering, how is this supposed to convince me that a computer is as an artist as I am? Well, it is not. Yet, some may argue that not only a robot is now a creative subject, but it is also a far better one than you are. Not only it can replace your labor, but it can do so by breaking through the constraints of time and place. It may not understand what art is, and yet, here it goes and makes it. They say we are living in a whole new age of art, where creativity is in the hands of everyone, not just artists. The scientist living next door is as much of a Picasso as you are, and your computer can make a better picture than you could in half the time. They proclaim it a new age of creativity, where all will be transformed under the influence of technology and science, and new art will emerge to bridge the gaps between the fields and break the last remaining boundaries. Maybe, we are at the precipice of something new or at the end of something old. Maybe, AI is a revolutionary threat and our relationship with art will be never be the same. I doubt it.

When Turing set out to define intelligence as the manipulation of informational patterns half a century ago, he was thinking of the human brain alone. He discarded our skin and labeled our flesh a cage. I argue there is art in the movement of our cages of meat. A computer will not be able to replicate it, or even understand it. In his 2017 novel, ’To be a Machine’, the Irish writer Mark O’Connell describes the meeting of a four-year-old girl with a four-foot humanoid called Pepper. The robot is a customer service machine, designed to feel emotions by receiving data through touch sensors. Pepper is asked to hug the little girl. Pepper does not understand.“You would be surprised how difficult it is to solve the problem of hugging.” What a machine can do is what we scripted of us into it. Yet, most of what we do is out of our control. There is art in the nonsense of our instinct, in the meaningless of actions. I argue you could hardly explain a machine that art is putting a urinal into a museum. I would like to see you try it.

Reference List

Chen, Weiwen and Shidujaman, Mohammad and Xuelin, Tang. AiArt: Towards Artificial Intelligence Art. ThinkMind, MMEDIA, The Twelfth International Conference on Advances in Multimedia, Lisbon, Portugal, 2020.

Field, Sarah-Jane, The end of something… but I’m not sure if it’s art just yet. Wordpress, 2022. Retrieved on 23rd November 2022 < not-sure-its-art-just-yet/?like_comment=697&_wpnonce=d1335dfcbe>

Harrison, Anya. All systems go. Flash Art, 2017. Retrieved 25 November 2022 <https://flash— article/lawrence-lek/ >

Hayles, Katherine N. How we become Post-human. The university of Chicago Press, 1999.
O’Connell, Mark. To be a machine: Adventures among cyborgs, utopians, hackers, and the futurists solving the modest problem of death. Anchor, 2018.

Ploin, A., Eynon, R., Hjorth I. & Osborne, M.A. AI and the Arts: How Machine Learning is Changing Artistic Work. Report from the Creative Algorithmic Intelligence Research Project, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, UK, 2022.

On self-portraiture

I grew up editing my body, carefully removing myself from it, from this damn cage of skin. I grew up split. My mind in other realities, narrating a life I was merely observing; and my body, just there, stuck in a looped obsession with its appearance. I am the body that I own, the one that I carry, the same one that owns my mind. How wide is the distance between the me that I created for the world and the me that I am? How many pins will I keep pinning to this imaginary jacket, how many new layers of plastic to cover this itchy skin?

Sometimes if I look at the same point for too long I forget I can control this skin that envelops me; it may be a chair, or a house, or a leaf falling from one of the house plants I can call home. Just for a few seconds I vanish, lost in a universe I do not yet understand. I tell myself that maybe there is where machines go when we turn them off. A limbo of our own making, a place that not even Dante would have been able to get to —considering his poor programming experience. Sometimes I read entire chapters before remembering I forgot that I am meant to understand, Instead just reciting letters in my head. I am two; one here sitting on this floor next to a fake fire, desperately needing to pee; the other in this note, vomiting emotions hoping they will land on the page as sentences.

We were constructing a digital identity before the internet was born, endlessly creating images of us for others to comprehend. We are split because it is in our nature, we exist alone and we do along with others; like sophisticated peacocks, we paint our feathers, according to seasonal trends. We always did. The only difference is that now we can gloss our virtual plumage, inventing versions of us so far from the skin we got assigned. There have always been two of us in each one of us, one stuck in a body, the other dreaming of a freedom we exchanged for status. We always did; giving each other labels, slapping stickers on our hats, claiming titles and dream to reach to finally be worthy.

I believe in self-portraiture as a tool to go back into our skins, to see ourselves from a different angle. Maybe, to just move a bit. Trust me, it helps. 

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