Algorithms, Steel Bolts and a Biro: the future of art in a technology-dominated world

Sarah Morel visits the Science Gallery to have her portrait drawn by some unusual artists.



I recently had my portrait drawn, and for the first time in many years, I remembered the strange feeling that accompanies gazing upon one’s own likeness as executed by another hand. I have a collection of three from this particular sitting- all individual in their own right, yet with the same scratchiness and jagged movements in black and white. Each portrait is impeccable, capturing my features exactly as they were on the day. This is a distinction which perhaps derives from the fact that they were not created by human hands, but rather by a collection of codes and algorithms stored inside a computer, connected to a webcam and a rudimentary ‘arm’ controlling a black biro. The artist, or should I say artists, were a trio of robots all named Paul.

The creation of Patrick Tresset, 3RNP (Three Robots Named Paul) is an art piece in itself, intended to explore how a soulless collaboration of metal and code explores and perceives the organic. In one sense, it does so by emulating its own subject matter- that being the illogical, emotional human being, complete with all its flaws and shortfalls. However, it was difficult to ignore all the rather convincing quirks displayed by the three robots, which served to create the atmosphere of a real drawing class populated by imperfect students. The most obvious human-like quirk was the tendency of all three robots to periodically pause at their work in order to gaze up at the model, before hurrying back to their nervous scratching and scribbling. Each of the robots worked at different speeds, and was informed by the attendant that drawing sessions often developed into a race between two of the Pauls, while the third adopted a more meticulous approach. It was easy to forget that these personalities were pre-programmed, a set of perfectly calculated imperfections.

Both the experience and the end result were unsettling. The portraits were utterly flawless underneath the various ‘mistakes’ made by the Pauls. It might seem easy to set up a webcam attached to a mechanical arm, but it is another story to make the end result resemble the result of human production. The likeness that was achieved, was a result of the masterful mimicry of human error. Despite this, the portraits look like empty husks. Perhaps the success of a portrait lies in the ability of the creator to understand the subject as more than a superficial image. A portrait that goes beyond the depiction of the subject’s physical likeness, and tells a wider story, could be considered the ‘ideal’ portrait. Here I am reminded of Frida Kahlo’s vast oeuvre, which consists almost completely of incredibly insightful and deeply emotional self-portraits, portraits which are hugely dependent on the depictions of the artist’s thoughts and feelings just as much as they are dependent on portrayals of her own physical likeness. Of course, Kahlo’s paintings are a bold example, but even still, many, if not most of the great portrait artists have taken a similar, if more subtle, approach to portrait painting. Rembrandt with his brash and heavy brushstrokes, which only became brasher and heavier as he aged and suffered hardship after hardship; Van Gogh and Kirchner with their symbolically loaded colour palettes; and even Vermeer, who employed an extensive iconography in order to tell the stories of his sitters. All followed a similar route to Kahlo in their portrait portfolios.

Many art historians have determined the ultimate purpose of portraits to be the immortalization of the subject at a certain moment in time, crystallised in layers of paint. We are constantly engrossed by our own mortality, and the creation of and preservation of our legacies. What makes 3RNP so ironic is the fact that the artist cannot know the underlying and constant threat of mortality, arguably the ultimate reason that humans create portraits in the first place. If 3RNP breaks, it can be repaired or reproduced exactly as it was before. Its human subject matter faces quite a different fate, one that nuts and bolts will never be able to comprehend.

With this in mind, is it possible for robots to become great portrait artists? Is art as we know it under threat by modern technology? Could it be that everything – from the ‘selfie’ to a class of robot artists – is threatening to dissolve portraits, and art as we know it, into something much more superficial? In a world where technology appears to be advancing without limit, permeating every aspect of contemporary life, it would be nigh on impossible for art and artists to remain untouched. On some occasions, art and technology come into conflict, but mostly, particularly in recent years, the two work alongside one another, if not with each other. However, rarely has technology become the artist itself, separating itself almost entirely from human intervention, as is the case with 3RNP. Indeed, with Paul’s creation, Patrick Tresset has thrown into question what it truly means to be an artist, asking what qualities are needed to create ‘good’ art beyond raw artistic skill.

It is generally agreed that a certain degree of artistic skill and a strong concept forms the basis of “good” art. However, across the huge array of what gets this stamp of approval, there appears to be an inherent human aspect. It is hard to imagine that artificial intelligence will be able to carry on the proverbial torch, as it has in so many other area of contemporary life. I would argue that technology is limited to making beautiful images, lacking any real conceptual substance. During my sitting, I recalled the 2015 Alex Garland film Ex Machina which explores the human fear of Artificial Intelligence. The film frequently used the example of art to illustrate both the differences and similarities between AI and humankind. The most interesting comparison drawn was between the pre-calculated, deliberate, yet flawless observational drawings of the robot Ava, and one of Jackson Pollock’s ‘drip paintings’. According to Oscar Isaac’s character, the Jackson Pollock would have never come about had a complete thought process come before the execution of the painting. Instead, the painting is a product of Pollock’s human nature, as natural an action as it is to feel desire, to breathe and to talk.

If a Pollock painting then is the purest artistic expression of humanity, then perhaps robot-produced art occupies an entirely separate stratum, one that should only be judged based on what the robot is capable of, that is to create something the quality of which relies purely the superficial beauty of the finished result. That being said however, it is quite impossible to avoid comparing robot-made and human-made art at present, solely due to the fact that so few robot artists exist at the moment, though that fact is almost certain to change in the near future.

The fact is that today’s artificial intelligence is incapable of deep contemplation or forging emotional connections and relationships with humans and animals. Indeed, it is a simple task to confirm whether another’s intelligence is human or artificial, and so it would be unreasonable to expect AI to be capable of creating the same type of art that humans have been creating for the past thousands of years. Instead, the end product of their labor may only be expected to be simply an object of pleasure, a picture that does not require identification with or vigorous contemplation of, but solely an image that serves to please the eye and nothing beyond that.  If the ‘selfie’ is indeed the next development in the long tradition of immortalizing oneself within the confines of an image, then perhaps this spells the beginning of technology taking over the world of art. If today’s artificial intelligence is anything to go by, then tomorrow’s post-human art will be simply keen observations and beautiful colours on a surface.

That being said, it may not be so simple for technology to take over this particular facet of human society, for art, in all its purposes and forms is a product of humanity. For thousands of years, humans have used art as a tool to record, contemplate, nurture and explore seemingly all aspects of our existence. Indeed, from the ancient cave drawings of the Chauvet Cave in France to Renoir’s bourgeoisie boat parties, art has retained an inherently human aspect throughout its history. Given how much a part art is of human culture, it is highly unlikely technology will be able to take over and develop a firmly post-human art in place of the ‘old’. In the end, even in the midst of an increasingly technology-reliant society, art will need us as much as we need art.

What does this mean for the likes of 3RNP? For now, the three robots exist simply as a unique novelty for the hordes of human subjects like me, whose curiosity fuelled the desire to have their portrait drawn. That same need is more often than not satiated via our front-facing cameras, as opposed to a skilled artist or photographer. However, as technology develops further, it isn’t unlikely that we will be seeing more robots like 3RNP, who will create an art merely to provide visual pleasure for the human observer. However, I would doubt that they would ever take over completely. Instead, these robot artists- immortal, unfeeling, and unaware as they are-will probably occupy a separate strata of artistic practice, while humans continue to use art as they have since before the dawn of time. Indeed, though 3RNP is an indicator of where leisure technology may be headed, I am confident that art, in all of its various styles, will continue to be inherently human. The future may be uncertain, but one should be confident that art will continue to tell the story of humanity past, present and future.

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